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Halloween – Again

October 29, 2018 17 comments

I’ve written several times over the years about how stigmatisation of mental illness can be very damaging, and in particular have focused on it at this time of year, as Halloween approaches.

When I was a kid Halloween wasn’t an event we marked in any way. Here in the UK we were busy making our guys for the forthcoming Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, and hadn’t yet imported the commercialisation of Halloween from the US. So I’m sorry to say, American friends, that your celebration for this rather passes me by! That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its importance to you, but it does seem to me to be a little artificial for it to be ‘celebrated’ here. This is, perhaps, a little ironic as the origins of Halloween can be traced back to this side of the Atlantic, in a pagan festival mostly known (in Ireland and Scotland, anyway) as Samhain, though there are different names for similar festivals in other Celtic regions. The name ‘Halloween’ has been in existence since around the mid-18th century, and is a derivation of All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. the day before All Hallows’ Day, on which remembrance of the dead takes place. In the past, celebrations have included mummers and costumes, which I guess has been handed down to us through the generations in the way that people dress up: witches are an obvious outfit, but there are many others available, most of which leave me wondering what relevance they have!

But, as I said earlier, this was a tradition that hadn’t travelled to the part of England in which I spent my childhood. Not until modern day marketing and commercialism took over, that is. At some point over the past 25 years or so this has become a bigger event in this country, probably as a result of the way in which American popular culture has been transferred over here by TV programmes. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money, retailers have been falling over themselves to profit from Halloween. But in their doing so, the boundaries of taste have often been forgotten. I wrote five years ago about Asda – and to a lesser extent, Tesco – selling costumes that mocked mental illness. The message that these were giving children, that it was somehow acceptable to make fun of people with mental health problems, was appalling, and the retailers had to give in to the outcry and withdraw the products from sale. But even after that outcry you can still find such costumes for sale this year among the specialist online fancy dress retailers. Here are a couple of examples I found without too much effort. Firstly, from partybritain.com:

And secondly, from escapade.co.uk:

No doubt there are others deserving to be named and shamed but I was too disheartened to look any further. How can anyone believe this to be acceptable? This is a shameful way to make money, but I guess that as these companies are much smaller than the likes of Asda and Tesco they have managed to slip under the radar. That doesn’t make them any less guilty in my eyes, though.

Another depiction of mental health issues which I find objectionable is to be found in horror movies. To be honest, I have a very low gore threshold and don’t watch a great many horror movies, and don’t really understand the fascination they hold for so many. Each to their own, of course, but where I really draw the line is where someone who is mentally ill is the main character in a movie and their illness is used in a stigmatising way. You’ll know which movies I mean, I’m sure: how anyone can see these as entertainment is beyond me, though I do like Jamie Lee Curtis!

I have no problem with anyone wanting to celebrate Halloween, though I imagine most, either in the US or elsewhere, would be hard pressed to explain exactly what it is they are celebrating. But as these little posters from the admirable Time To Change organisation remind us, these celebrations should have absolutely nothing to do with mocking mental illness. These were actually created a couple of years ago but their message is still very valid and, sadly, remains relevant. There is nothing remotely funny about costumes and behaviour that mock those with mental health issues as ‘nutters,’ ‘mad’ or just ‘mental,’ when the word is used pejoratively.

 

Remember, Halloween is supposed to be the modern day version of an old pagan custom, which had nothing to do with mental illness. It is also significant in a religious sense – the day before All Hallows’ Day, which has been a Catholic day of note for centuries – and that also isn’t about mental ill health! The Time To Change website has eight helpful tips on how to enjoy Halloween without perpetuating the stigmatisation of mental health. They even include a little bit of historical knowledge in there so that you can impress your friends by knowing the meaning of the Halloween tradition. If you’re interested these tips can be found here and are well worth a look.

So please, by all means enjoy any celebrations you may be having, but don’t mock those who are unable to defend themselves against unfair stigmatisation.

Happy Halloween!

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World Mental Health Day 2018

October 10, 2018 17 comments

It has been a few months since my last post on mental health and it seems right to post today, to mark World Mental Health Day (WMHD). This day has been celebrated – if that is the correct word – since 1992, and is co-ordinated by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH). This year’s theme is ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’ – you may have seen the logo:

On their website, the WFMH explain the reasons for this choice of theme:

“Imagine growing up in our world today. Constantly battling the effects of human rights violations, wars and violence in the home, schools and businesses. Young people are spending most of their day on the internet – experiencing cyber crimes, cyber bullying, and playing violent video games. Suicide and substance abuse numbers have been steadily rising, LGBTQ youth are feeling alone and persecuted for being true to themselves and young adults are at the age when serious mental illnesses can occur and yet they are taught little to nothing about mental illness and wellbeing…..We want to bring attention to the issues our youth and young adults are facing in our world today and begin the conversation around what they need in order to grow up healthy, happy and resilient.”

Here in the UK the Education Policy Institute (EPI) published the results of its recent survey at the weekend, and although news coverage didn’t mention its relevance to the WMHD theme I don’t think the timing was a coincidence. The EPI undertook Freedom of Information requests from 60 providers of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and from local authorities, and received 54 provider responses, so I think it safe to describe the study as comprehensive. Their headline finding is that referrals to CAMHS have increased by 26% over the past five years. Based on data from 50 of the respondents there were more than 264,000 referrals of under-18s in 2017/18. Having worked a lot with our CAMH services during my years in the NHS I find this figure horrifying: the service was already overrun with referrals, and is now under even more pressure. And we should never lose sight of the fact that every single one of these referrals represents a child (or children) and family which is being torn apart by their problems. It’s heartbreaking.

There is a good report on the study here on the BBC’s website: it makes for interesting reading. Interesting, but very scary and worrying. Some 27 local authorities (out of 111) reported that they had ceased to provide services for the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in the past eight years. Over and above the loss of those related services, far too many – more than 20% – of provider referrals were refused treatment as not meeting required criteria. In effect, the children and young people weren’t considered sufficiently unwell!

The BBC report quotes the official Department of Health position: “We are transforming mental health services for children and young people with an additional £1.4bn and are on track to ensure that 70,000 more children a year have specialist mental health care by 2020-21.

“We are improving access to mental health services through schools with a brand new dedicated workforce, as well as piloting a four-week waiting time standard in some areas, so we can better understand how to reduce waiting times.

“We are completely committed to achieving parity between physical and mental health as part of our long-term plan for the NHS, backed by an additional £20.5bn of funding per year by 2023-24.”

This is being followed up by a speech today by the Prime Minister, in which she is fleshing out some of these commitments. For the first time we are to have a minister with specific responsibility for suicide prevention, and £1.8m is to be provided to the Samaritans to enable them to continue their helpline for four years. For children and young people, the government is promising more support in schools, bringing in new mental health support teams and offering help in measuring students’ health, including their mental wellbeing. There will also be a new annual progress report each year on WMHD. This is all being announced at a global summit on mental health being held in London, attended by representatives from around fifty countries. I wonder what, if anything apart from the usual platitudes, will come out of this, and what the composition of that attendance is – does it, for example, include large countries who are really in a position to make a difference? We can but hope so.

Of course, any government initiatives on mental health are welcome, but please forgive me for being a little cynical about this: the government has been making noises about improving mental health services – both for children and adults – for quite a while now. But, as I covered in my piece Mental Health Matters in September 2016, there doesn’t seem to be any certainty of service commissioners making this additional funding available to the providers for whom it is intended. To date, there has been a lack of joined up thinking about mental health treatment, and drastic changes are needed. And then there is the question of whether this funding exists at all. Remember that Vote Leave promise of making an extra £350m per week available for the NHS if we left the EU? Well, the latest official figures suggest that, rather than making that saving, Brexit is actually losing us more than £500m per week, and that is before we even jump off the cliff! And we also need to consider the haemorrhage of staff the NHS is already suffering pre-Brexit, a position which doesn’t seem likely to improve if the government continues to bury its head in the sand over the disastrous effects of losing freedom of movement across the EU. Even if that funding were somehow to materialise from some magic money tree – which I very much doubt – where are all these new specialist staff going to come from? Even if the money was already being provided – which it isn’t – there is no way that all of the specialist staff required could be recruited and trained in time to meet the government’s stated aim. In short: it’s as valid as a promise to give us all a pet unicorn.

Sadly, I fear that this is all a very long way short of what the WFMH describes in its objectives for this year’s WMHD. The figures I have quoted relate to the more serious cases which require specialist treatment, but there are far greater numbers of young people who are affected by the issues set out in the WMHF statement: how are they going to get the help they need in current circumstances? So much needs to be done, but do we have the resources and the desire to make this happen? I’d love to be proved wrong, but I’m not sure that we do. Of course, I know there are no easy answers to this, but I hope today will be a starting point for us to review our priorities as a society. If we don’t give our children and young people the best possible start in life we are failing them. I hope the Government has the will, money and resources to deliver on today’s announcement. It will be interesting to see how much they will have achieved by the time their first annual report comes round next 10 October, and whether they will have done enough to confound my doubts.

300 Not Out – A Retrospective

August 29, 2018 29 comments

Recently I mentioned that I was planning something to mark my 300th post. Well, this is number 300, and the more observant among you will have noticed that it has been more than a month since number 299. The gap is much longer than I had intended, partly due to my natural indolence and a bit of illness, but more the result of the several false starts I made on the planned post. Finally, I’ve accepted reality: it just wasn’t working, so I’ve consigned it to the WordPress equivalent of the round metal file on the floor. I covered some of this ground in my recent-ish post 69 Months Later, but I’ve been looking back over what I have posted over the years, and post number 300 seems as good a time as any for a fuller reflection on what I’ve done, whilst using that as a stepping stone to the future. So…. here goes!

I’ve often restated why I began this blog so, at the risk of boring you, I’ll do a brief recap now to start off this retrospective (you have my permission to skip this bit if you’ve heard it before!). I was diagnosed in late 2011 with depression, and was off work for more than nine months. When I went back I was invited to take a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and, as part of this, I did a number of written exercises which got me thinking more than I had ever done before about me, my life, and what was important to me. After all, I was only 59 so it wasn’t too late to start! At the suggestion of my counsellor, who described my writing as ‘inspiring,’ some of these became the basis for my first few posts. These can be found under  ‘My Story’ in the menu above, and if you haven’t read them before I think they’re worth a few minutes of your time if you want to know where I’m coming from.

The point of doing this wasn’t to wallow in self pity, though: what would have been the value in that? I started blogging because I had realised how important our mental health and well-being is to us, and hoped that by sharing my own experience I could encourage others who might also be having a hard time to see that they weren’t alone. The response was encouraging, so I decided to keep going. Mental health is still, and will always be, important for me and it is a theme to which I return even if I’ve rambled off into the distance for many of my posts.

I think you can learn a lot about blogs from the category descriptions their authors use. I’ve tinkered a bit with my categories over the years, both to tighten up what was in danger of becoming an amorphous mass, and also to (hopefully) make it easier for readers to find their way around. The current menu structure has been largely unchanged for quite a while now: it works for me, and reflects what I’m trying to do. Dip in to some, if you haven’t before. You’ll see that some just take you to the most recent post in that category, while others give you a sub-menu of posts – basically, these are the shorter menus (some were getting ridiculously long!).

Over the past couple of years the number of people following my blog has increased tremendously. Many of you won’t have seen some of my earlier posts before, and I’ve mined my back catalogue a lot to share some of these. I usually add a new commentary, updating what I had previously said, and I hope you have enjoyed some of these. It should go without saying that any post which has been given this treatment is one that I enjoyed writing and revisiting, and sharing them again has the added benefit of sparing me from writing something new! As this is a retrospective, I thought I’d highlight a few favourite posts – both mine and those which appear to have been popular in others’ eyes.

Rather surprisingly, perhaps, when I went through my back catalogue I found quite a few posts that I hadn’t recycled. Some of these, such as those I produced in the two years that I participated in November’s National Blog Posting Month – post every day, watch the quality fall off a cliff – were probably best left alone, and I’ve long since removed the menu link for them. Masochists can always find them via the Archives tab on the right, and looking for the Novembers of 2014 and 2015! One early post which I rather like was Dazed And Confused, from August 2013, in which I had one of my little rants: the target for this was marketing, which is a worthy subject for a moan! Another post from 2013 has a great deal of meaning for me. In those days I often responded to the daily prompt offered by WordPress, back when these were meaningful thoughts, rather than the single word option they went for instead – which was responsible for more pointless doggerel appearing in my email notifications than I could ever have wished for. No surprise to me that these prompts were eventually discontinued. In this post, My Mind’s Eye, I was looking ahead to my imminent retirement and sharing the symbolism of the London Eye for what I wanted to do with my future. My two wonderful daughters took me out for a special day to celebrate my 60th birthday and retirement – I must have mentioned my wish to go on the Eye, as that was part of my day! For some reason it took me a while to write about that day, but I eventually got round to it three years later in A Celebration – another of my favourite posts.

Having begun this blog to post about mental health, I’m rather proud of the fact that my three posts which have achieved the most ‘likes’ from readers are all mental health posts: see the ‘Top Posts & Pages’ links to the right. As I’ve said before, I don’t have a huge readership for this blog, and a typical post is likely to pick up around 20 to 25 likes: these three posts are all comfortably beyond that and the top one, Mental Health Matters, has 140 likes. For some of you that is nothing significant but for me it is astonishing! It was written in response to a report in the paper, about the way that the commissioning bodies for health services here in the UK were diverting funds which were supposedly ringfenced for mental health treatments, using them instead for other services. It seems that I wasn’t alone in finding this outrageous! Those top posts can all be easily reached – just click on the titles – so please feel free to take a look at any that you may not have seen previously. Mental health has been a recurrent theme for me. I used to do a regular series of ‘Dates To Note’ which were usually about health and social care subjects. Mental health featured often in these posts, which have their own menu entry above – as, of course, does mental health itself. If you’re interested, you’ll find my most recent posts – from May this year – under both menu headings. One of the aspects of mental health that has exercised me on several occasions is the way that it is stigmatised. This post from 2013 is an early one of this sort, and I have used that as the basis both for a reblog and a reworked piece. Sadly, this is still an issue now and I fear there may need to be another post of this kind when the time comes this year. As I said, mental health is still an important issue for me, so expect to see more about it in future.

Another important subject for me is music, which has played a central role in my life since I was a child. I have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, but I couldn’t live without music. It gets its own special mention in the tagline for the blog, and the blog’s title is that of one of my favourite songs. As well as countless sharings of songs at random times, I also have my occasional series of #SaturdaySongs where, by and large, I share the story of why a song is important to me. The menu gives you easy access to them all, but probably the most important piece for me which relates to a song isn’t in that series: I Hope You Dance, which I wrote to welcome the birth of my first grandchild, has that honour. I’m grateful that so many of you have hit the ‘like’ button for it: that means a great deal to me.

So, after 300 posts in nearly six years, where do I go from here? What does the future hold for my blog? I don’t imagine that I’ll change my blogging habits in any perceptible way: I’m not someone who can produce to a schedule and, since I retired and tried to remove stress from my life as far as possible, I imagine that there will still be erratic gaps or, more rarely, very short periods between posts. I don’t want to be driven by a clock or a calendar, but at least that means you’ll always have that element of surprise when an email notification lands on you! In short, the future for this blog will be more of the same though hopefully not in any boring way! A blogger I respect enormously told me in a comment today that I ‘have a fantastic blog.’ I’m not sure I deserve that, but I’d like to think that I can in some way inform, entertain and amuse you sufficiently to make you come back for more.

Those of you who, like me, use one of the free WordPress packages will, no doubt, have noticed that Facebook have recently made an ‘improvement’ which has meant that we can no longer share posts with our Facebook friends. They did this in the name of reducing fake news: frankly, I think removing this facility from those of us with personal blogs is ridiculous, but who am I to question Farcebook in its infinite wisdom? This has, however, prompted me to do something new. So, as you can see from the picture link to the right, I have…. cue fanfare…. started a Facebook page for this blog. I haven’t done much with it yet, but the intention is to post pictures, YouTube videos and news links which I hope you’ll find interesting and enjoyable, as well as being relevant and complementary to my blog. And, of course, new blog posts will all appear there – Facebook still lets us do that, probably because it gives them the option to bombard us with entreaties to ‘boost’ our posts. For a fee, of course. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be taking up their kind offer! So please, take a look and if you feel in the mood to ‘like’ the page I’d be very grateful. As I said, there isn’t much there yet, but I intend to make it somewhere worth spending a moment or two of your time. I expect I’ll be plugging it here a bit, too!

This has turned out to be a much longer post than I intended, so thank you for reading this far! Thank you also for following my blog – assuming that you do, of course – and for bearing with me for however much of the past six years or so that you’ve been here. Thank you also for all of the likes and comments: it’s good to know that so many of you have enjoyed at least a little of what I’ve been doing, and being a part of the blogging community and sharing those interactions is what really makes it all worthwhile.

See you again soon, I hope 😊

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