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Awareness is important, action is indispensable

In 2001 the Mental Health Foundation began a campaign to raise awareness for the silent and unseen, but all too real illnesses that blight millions of Britons; a campaign which has culminated in the most high-profile mental health awareness week in history.

Focusing largely on body image and the negative impacts of such on Brits – particularly, but not exclusively young girl’s – the week has seen countless celebrities open about their experiences, exposing the prevalence of such issues.

Celebrities such as The Great British Bake Off’s Nadia Hussain – speaking on her struggles with anxiety – have come forward to talk about their struggles with mental illness, discarding the yoke of stigma that has prevented so many sufferers from seeking treatment.

It is believed that as many as one in eight people will suffer from suicidal thoughts in their lifetime, with around 50% of Britons expecting to be directly impacted by mental illness during their life.

The suffer in silence mentality that has prevailed throughout history, has driven many with mild conditions into more serious and debilitating disease, something seen as a contributor to the significant rise in suicide deaths in recent decades.

Having listened to several radio presenters over the past week tell people who are opening up about depression that they were simply ‘sad’, it is clear to me just how far the suffer in silence notion has prevailed, and how much awareness still must be raised.

However, awareness is only half of the story, perhaps not even half. Like many who wait hours in A&E to be treated for physical injuries, sufferers with mental health conditions are forced to wait for treatment. Unlike most physical injuries, however, those with mental health conditions are often forced to wait months before they are even seen by a specialist.

In the meantime, those suffering from serious conditions are forced to suffer, often alone, without the tools needed to achieve wellness again. The equivalent is perhaps a person with a gash in their leg having to forgo stitches for the first month after the injury.

It is well documented that forgoing such treatment in the early stages of a physical condition is likely to lead to greater complications or the inability of full recovery to be reached, and although I am by no means an expert in the field, such incomplete treatment of mental conditions can only lead to a similar result.

In Leicestershire, it remains practically impossible to access face-to-face counselling sessions with a mental health expert, with many sufferers instead having to settle for group discussions, or phone appointments – particularly ineffective for those with social anxiety disorders.

This will often lead those to end up developing more serious conditions or ending up at a crisis centre.

This is unless you go private, where treatment can be accessed within days, but at a premium of hundreds of pounds per session, making it virtually inaccessible to lower-income individuals and families – where mental illness appears to be most prevalent.

Current treatment across the UK – except crisis treatment which is largely effective – falls upon GP’s with little understanding of the field to prescribe a concoction of drugs that often suppress the conditions many suffer with.

In the short term, this enables people to be relieved of their symptoms – although not in all cases, with side effects and deterioration being common – but fails to address the root causes of mental illness and is woeful in tackling such disorders in any meaningful and long-lasting way.

Such patching up with suppressant drugs can have significant long-term impacts on patients, with some drugs altering personalities, by suppressing their character as much as their illness, whilst the anti-depressant Sertraline has been linked to two sudden deaths in the past year – although the risk remains exceptionally low.

Medication is extremely important in beating mental illness, however, it is not a solution on its own and without the physical support of qualified doctors - a luxury so many cannot access - then tackling and beating such mental unwellness remains extremely difficult.

This can be evidenced by frequent relapses amongst sufferers, with many of those struggling with severe conditions having suffered from less debilitating conditions earlier in their lives.

The reason for such poor treatment can be somewhat traced back to a lack of meaningful research in the area, with treatment for long term cause – rather than illness suppressants – being somewhat of a grey area when the reasons for mental health illness are not entirely clear.

However, with suicide being a leading cause of death amongst under 30s, the medical community must act in a more comprehensive manner to tackle these major issues, however, without funding, this is not possible.

In recent years we have seen significant growth in the use of mental health-related language from politicians, with investment in services having increased in recent years, however, this remains far from a priority.

Much of the conversation around mental health has been meaningless. As awareness has forced soundbites to be produced on the topic and an acknowledgement of the crisis, but when it is time for serious investment and action, it is relatively immaterial.

Back in the November budget, Chancellor Phillip Hammond promised a £2bn increase in mental health spending, with mental health support being available at every large A&E facility being the cornerstone of this announcement.

However, this policy was wrought with flaws. Firstly, the funding was contingent on the Brexit deal being agreed – something that has still failed to materialise – whilst, the plan also totally fails to tackle the root cause and early treatment.

The investment is likely to improve crisis treatment – when sufferers could be found in a debilitating state of psychosis or other significant condition – however, does little to tackle the earlier stages of such illness, which would reduce the need for such facilities and the strain on their staff and patients.

Investment at an earlier stage would also enable sufferers to access support, ensuring a greater quality of life by ridding such illness at an earlier stage.

The current UK policy towards mental health treatment is rather analogous to the earlier gashed leg example; except when you have a cut, you cannot access treatment until blood loss puts you on the brink of cardiac arrest.

Once they have given you a transfusion and mop up the blood they then send you on your way and tell you to contact the stitching department and maybe two months down the line they can fit you in, whilst in the meantime, you reach breaking point once again.

Awareness around mental health is important, reducing the stigma not only helps those suffering to seek treatment but will prevent others from being insensitive to their condition – which can often lead to further decline. However, without serious investment in services which tackle conditions earlier in their development, the benefits of such awareness are minimal.

To really tackle mental illness, it needs to be taken seriously; awareness is important, action is indispensable.

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