This week started with ‘Blue Monday’ – said to be the most depressing day of the year. In 2021, it’s especially important that we take the opportunity to talk about mental health. People are rightly worried about the numbers of people losing their lives to Covid and the impact on loved ones. Local business owners lie awake at night wondering how they will survive with their livelihoods intact. Families, friends and neighbours have been apart from one another – with major milestones celebrated virtually. This pandemic has been especially tough for older people, particularly those who live on their own and are already at greater risk of loneliness and social isolation; and it comes on top of an epidemic in a mental health that has roots long predating Covid.
Last week, the Government announced long overdue reforms to the Mental Health Act – the legislation that underpins public policy on this issue but that is now 40 years out of date. These reforms are important, placing a much greater emphasis on the right of individuals to have greater control over their treatment. In all, these reforms help to make mental health treatment more accessible and appropriate.
Whilst these reforms improve the legislation underpinning mental health treatment, to be really effective in providing solutions to the epidemic they need to be backed up by properly funded services that can protect people during times of crisis and support them in the longer-term to live happy, fulfilling lives. Too many people are currently stuck on waiting lists to be assessed for their mental health needs. I know from my own postbag and email inbox as a local MP, that there is particular pressure on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) with local families having to wait too long to get the assessments, treatment and support they are crying out for. I know our brilliant local NHS teams are working flat out to clear the waiting lists and support families in need, but they need the Government’s support and funding to make sure services work as effectively as possible. I’ve often said that the issue that keeps me awake at night is the mental health crisis in our young people – the Government now have a golden opportunity to fix that crisis for good.
Properly funded services are undoubtedly the best way to tackle the mental health epidemic. But there are also too many people – particularly men of a certain generation and mindset – who suffer in silence, who don’t feel that they can talk about their worries. We’ve come a long way, even in my lifetime, when it comes to being able to talk about feelings. In my book Long Way Home, I wrote about the strategy drilled into me from my earliest days in the Army: the Coping Box. The theory was simple, you took your worries and packed them away into the Coping Box – a problem for another day. It’s not a strategy I would recommend trying. Bottling up problems, hoping they will go away, never works in the long-term – it’s far better to acknowledge and address problems.
There is, of course, still a way to go to break down outdated ideas and dangerous stigma, which is why we’ve got fantastic local initiatives such as Barnsley Council’s ‘Alright Pal’ campaign and ‘Live Well South Yorkshire’ which promotes physical and mental health to help residents and businesses through lockdown and beyond. We can all help a friend who might be struggling – whether that’s picking up the phone for a chat or enjoying a (virtual!) brew – and play our part in tackling the epidemic in mental health.