Mental health needs a place in the limelight
World Mental Health Day, on Wednesday, deserves extra focus this year
with many people straining to cope with the fallout of the austerity
measures being rolled out across numerous countries
The Guardian, Tuesday 9 October 2012 12.30 BST
The comedian and former psychiatric nurse, Jo Brand, is appearing with her one-time boss, psychoanalyst David Bell, at a fundraiser this month to try to save a specialist centre in north London from closure. Brand, along with Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax, is a member of the mental health advocacy A-list. Championing mental health has become a popular cause for celebrities in recent years, and, with cuts biting hard, it’s easy to see why charities seek out famous people to attract whatever publicity they can.
The Brand event, billed as an unconventional discussion about the comedian’s career, is attempting to raise money for the Camden psychotherapy unit (CPU), a long-established voluntary sector community mental health centre for vulnerable adults that is struggling to survive following a review of services. Brand is unequivocal about why she is doing it. “I try to do my best for causes that are not so lovable,” she says. “Having been a mental health nurse I know where [mental health] ranks in terms of priorities.”
CPU’s predicament is far from uncommon. Rather, it is a microcosm of the perilous situation faced by services and the people who use them all over the UK. It may have celebrity endorsement but up until now it was just another service on a precipice. Week in week out, cuts to mental health provision are being challenged – with and without the aid of celebrities. Indeed, last week, as the Labour party conference was in full swing in Manchester, a group of local mental health service users protested against cuts to services in Salford, even managing to speak to Ed Miliband in the process.
On a grander scale, campaigns such as The Hardest Hit, a coalition of charities and public figures fighting cuts and changes to the benefits system that disproportionately affect disabled people and people with mental health difficulties, is ensuring through regular public demonstrations that vulnerable groups have a voice.
The evidence of strain is everywhere. The mental health charity, Mind, has reported a surge in calls to its information and legal helplines (up by 18% and 28%, respectively, between October 2011 and April 2012 compared with the same period a year before). The charity says service users report growing concerns about cuts to services, and the controversial work capability assessment “fit for work” test. When it comes to crisis care – the services people rely on when they hit “rock bottom” – the number of beds for emergency admissions on specialist mental health wards has declined sharply, the charity adds.
All of this matters all the time, but since Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of World Mental Health Day (WMHD), it is perhaps deserving of additional focus. WMHD is traditionally a time when mental health practitioners, advocates and service users in the UK, and beyond, review what has been achieved and what still needs to be done. This year, with austerity programmes being rolled out in numerous countries and a deep economic trough that shows few signs of abating, the World Federation for Mental Health, which oversees WMHD, is stressing the hazards faced by people in difficulty.
WMHD doesn’t always attract the publicity it should. Perhaps it needs more celebrities. If ever there was a time to take stock, reflect and challenge, it is arguably right now. In times of extraordinary economic hardship, not only are services threatened, the prevalence of mental illness increases. The stresses of job loss, debt, family breakdown and a multitude of other misfortunes swell the ranks of people in need of help. Those fighting to save services in Camden, Salford and elsewhere know this only too well. All credit to them for not giving up. And credit also to the people who support and encourage them, famous or not.
Mary O’Hara is a social affairs writer and Fulbright scholar.