Understanding inequalities in mental health
By Tom Pollard
As I try to write a blog about the importance of understanding inequalities in mental health, I’m acutely aware that, as a white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender man, my voice is not one that needs to be amplified. Indeed, one of my main reflections after recovering from my first experience of mental health problems in my early 20s was how lucky I was that my circumstances were so conducive to me getting the support I needed.
However, I hope that by sharing some of my personal and professional experiences I can encourage as many people as possible, and especially those who have experienced inequalities directly, to help make the Centre’s Commission on Equality as powerful a tool for change as I know it has the potential to be.
I recently attended a meeting of an advisory group for the Commission, looking at how national policy impacts on inequalities in who develops mental health problems, whether they can access support, and what their experience of this support is. Last year, I moved on after almost a decade working on social policy related to mental health, to start training as a Mental Health Social Worker. It was rewarding both to drop back into discussions of national policy, and to be able to relate this to the lived experience of people I have been supporting in my new role.
A society, and systems of health and social support, that have been designed primarily around the needs of people from ‘majority’ groups, at best struggles to meet the needs of people not fitting this profile and at worst plays an active role in making their life more difficult and distressing.
Throughout my time working on policy, I had become increasingly passionate about the extent to which people’s experience of mental health problems were fundamentally shaped and mediated by their personal characteristics and circumstances. A society, and systems of health and social support, that have been designed primarily around the needs of people from ‘majority’ groups, at best struggles to meet the needs of people not fitting this profile and at worst plays an active role in making their life more difficult and distressing.
Now that I am working in frontline practice, I am gaining a much richer understanding of how these inequalities play out at an individual level. It was one thing to know the headline statistics, and even to hear from ‘case studies’ who had experienced these issues, but it is quite another to work alongside someone as they face additional challenges every day because of characteristics they were born with or circumstances they have found themselves in. It feels like moving from seeing something in black and white to seeing it in colour.
When I have tried to talk with others about my experiences of mental health problems, the thing I have found hardest to communicate is that the symptoms of anxiety, depression and obsessive thoughts, when they take hold, are not just layered on top of your usual personality and sense of self – they affect your whole perception of reality and your place in it. In a similar way, people’s personal characteristics and circumstances aren’t just features of their lives, they fundamentally shape their outlook and experiences, especially when it comes to interactions with systems and services that are supposed to support them.
People’s personal characteristics and circumstances aren’t just features of their lives, they fundamentally shape their outlook and experiences, especially when it comes to interactions with systems and services that are supposed to support them.
It is only through hearing about the specific and subtle details of how these characteristics and circumstances are shaping people’s experiences, and setting this alongside the broader trends and systemic issues that underlie these experiences, that the Commission can highlight the full range of inequalities in mental health, and develop ideas for how to change services and society to address them.
So, if your personal or professional life means you have something to say about inequalities in mental health, please do share your thoughts with the Commission to make sure that it is informed by the voices that too often go unheard or ignored.
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