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by Kenneth Murray
06 April 2021
Comment: Mental health should not reach crisis point before people get help

Kenneth Murray: 'Governments need to take a fresh approach to mental health.'

Comment: Mental health should not reach crisis point before people get help

We’re a year into the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around the world, we’ve spent a year, worrying about our physical health and that of our loved ones. New strategies have been put into place to help protect our homes and our workplaces. Yet it seems our mental health as a nation is suffering with little reprieve, and has been for a while.

A few years ago, I had an experience in trying to get counselling. My experience was one which lacked choice. I had to take who I got, regardless of whether I related to them or whether they practiced a therapy that would be useful for me. It was also an entirely time-bound experience in which I left feeling like I had wasted my time and the counsellor’s because I wasn’t in crisis.

I remember thinking at the time that there was something missing for people like me, who were neither in crisis or coping entirely. 

In an ideal world, you’d have access to mental health support the moment you need it. However, that privilege only stretches towards those who can pay for it. If you can’t afford to put yourself at the front of the queue, you can attend your GP clinic and ask for a referral to be made.

According to the charity SAMH, one in five appointments at a GP clinic is related to mental health. 

Even if you manage to get a referral, you’ll be told that you can wait up to 18 weeks for access to service. Government figures show that between October-December 2020, none of the NHS boards across Scotland met that target for adults. Only five did for children and young people.

This isn’t directly related to COVID. In fact, we were failing to meet these targets in the years preceding the pandemic too. Two years ago, in March 2019, only one health board met that target.

In a modern country like Scotland with socialised healthcare, our mental health really should not reach crisis point before we are given help. On average, two people die by suicide a day in Scotland, a rate which is rising especially in communities impacted by poverty. If the measure of a nation is how it treats its most vulnerable, we’re failing.

After a year in lockdown and an absence of activities which promote positive mental health such as gym classes, social clubs and time with family, it’s clear that as a nation we’ve sacrificed our mental health to suppress COVID-19.

At the same time as we’re accepting inevitable delays and being encouraged to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’, social media is awash with so called lifestyle gurus, an entirely unlicensed profession, giving out tips on wellbeing whilst our statutory services are failing to meet targets all around us.

These ‘gurus’ and influencers need no qualifications, aren’t registered and aren’t held to any standards. Meanwhile, these people profit from a desperate population by selling candles, diaries and soaps under the banner of wellbeing, earning commission or royalties.

The success of these lifestyle influencers showcases that there’s a demand for mental health services which support people across the scale of need. They’ve identified a gap in the market for people who are not yet in crisis but are looking for support.  Whilst they profit and are easy to access, if you need access to real support you’re met with a maze of bureaucracy and judgement. Even after you’ve been referred, you can still be turned away.

Historically, it has been difficult to speak up about this because of the stigma surrounding poor mental health. Perhaps the experience we’ve all been through may go some way to eradicating the stigma, especially if we speak about our own experiences of it. Something I’m sure most of us have as we creep ever further on in lockdown.

This pandemic will end and we will need to address the mental impact on every one of us. If our services are already unprepared to meet targets and provide adequate support to those relying on them, how will they cope when we’re faced with a return to the world? 

In the road to recovery, the government needs to take its consideration and the budget it has allocated towards mental health and ensure it becomes action. We need to know how it is going to build services to meet demand so that people get help when they ask for it.

Our services sprung into action to support the population as the pandemic raged on and with vaccines in sight, many of us will be eager to return to some semblance of normality. However, we can’t return to a world in which the mental health services remain as they were pre-COVID. 

A number of charities across the third sector have laid out their plans for making a positive impact on the nation’s mental health. These measures span financial support for those in poverty, access to leisure and sport and adequate mental health services. The governments in both Holyrood and Westminster need to take a fresh approach to mental health. An approach that invests in existing and new services as well as those providing them. 

Throughout the pandemic we’ve shown just how capable and dynamic our services can be, if given the freedom and support to do the work. We need to adopt that same spirit going forward or the impact of COVID on our mental health will be felt well beyond our physical recovery.

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