Have we ‘gone too far’ on mental health? No. We’re not even close.

22 March 2024
By Andy Bell
Andy Bell

It’s now more than a decade since the first sitting Members of Parliament talked openly in the House of Commons about their experiences of mental ill health. It was a moment that both reflected and sparked deep social change. It helped engender a culture of greater openness about mental health and mental illness in the UK.

We’re now more aware and literate about our mental health than ever in 2024. For younger generations in particular, talking about mental health is considered normal, and doing things to look after it is valued and taken seriously.

It’s perhaps inevitable that progress of this kind will be followed by a backlash. Yesterday, the Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride argued that “mental health culture has gone too far”, as the Government announced plans to downgrade benefits for people with mental health difficulties. This follows a growing, and increasingly aggressive, narrative among media commentators (in the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Economist among others) who have raised similar questions. They’ve asked if we are now too open about our mental health, and if this is weakening people’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life.

It is of course reasonable enough to question whether our increasing openness about our mental health has created unintended risks. Medicalising the challenges and stresses of normal life does no one any favours. And encouraging people to be open about something, without also having the resources to help, leaves us high and dry.

The reality, though, is that, if anything, we haven’t yet gone far enough. The nation’s mental health is under enormous pressure in the aftermath of the pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. There is clear evidence of a rise in mental ill health in recent years, particularly among children and young people, and greater pressure on mental health services as a result. Rates of mental ill health among children and young people have risen from one in ten in 2004 to one in five now. Referrals to mental health services have reached record numbers, so that as fast as services have been able to expand, demand has grown faster, and access to timely help remains difficult for too many.

Sadly, it’s the poorest and most disadvantaged who face by far the highest risks. We’re not all in it together, or at least not to the same extent. Living in poverty is a cause of significant stress and distress. The poorest have the highest rates of most mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, but the least access to support. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of discrimination compound the risks faced by many groups of people. And as societies become more unequal, rates of mental illness also rise.

Some of the backlash against ‘mental health awareness’ is tied up with hostile narratives about the rising numbers of younger adults in particular who are out of work due to mental ill health. It’s the centuries old stereotype of the ‘undeserving poor’, with the added baggage of generational conflict and fear of social change. Rather than looking for effective solutions to create a mentally healthier future for young people, it leads to calls for harsher and more restrictive benefit rules – the very thing that will impoverish yet more young people and families, and consequently make their mental health even worse. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that yesterday’s comments accompanied an announcement that benefit rules are about to become even tougher for people with mental health difficulties through a change to the Work Capability Assessment. This is a dangerous policy, that will impoverish more people and provide no extra help for those seeking work.

Our growing mental health literacy is a profound social change that I hope is here for good. But it’s not finished. We’ve barely got started in some crucial areas. Schools, colleges and workplaces are only now beginning to understand their role in creating good (or poor) mental health. As a society, we haven’t yet really appreciated the bigger things that affect people’s mental health: such as poverty, inequality, racism, and injustice. And people with mental health difficulties still don’t have a fair chance in life: long waits for help, poorer experiences of education, employment and housing, and a massively reduced life expectancy.

So, no, we haven’t yet ‘gone too far’. There’s no such thing as ‘mental health culture’. There’s a lot more to do. We can become a mentally healthier nation. Government – national and local – can take the lead by giving their policies a mental health test. A mental health commissioner in Whitehall, and champions in local government, can provide vital leadership. Business and civil society can do their part, too, using the growing evidence base about how to create mentally healthier workplaces and communities. Better mental health is everyone’s business, and pursuing it will help create a healthier and brighter future for us all.

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