The problem with Britain’s mental health

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

Experts tell us that we are facing a mental health ‘time bomb’ in the UK, partly as a consequence of Covid restrictions and partly because we have a Conservative government which has as its apparent main priority a malevolent desire to see people go insane and, hopefully, kill themselves. I am paraphrasing the experts here, all of whom hate the Tories and want more money spent on their area of expertise, i.e. mental health. In January the Daily Mail quoted still more experts telling us that this mental health time bomb was actually ‘ticking’, in an ominous manner, suggesting to me that this was a very old make of time bomb but — more pertinently — terrifying the population with the notion that very soon this ticking time bomb would detonate with an enormous roaring sound and would spray loonies over us all.

Scarcely a day goes by without some quack, trick cyclist or ‘educator’ insisting that everyone is going mental and we need more money to cope with this largely government-inspired tsunami of madness — while never, of course, using the words ‘mental’ or ‘madness’. (Or ‘tsunami’, for that matter.) During the early days of lockdown in March last year we were told, repeatedly, that our children would go doolally very soon. Missives from my daughter’s state school continually reinforced this scenario, stressing that doing schoolwork was of lowly importance compared with ensuring that she wasn’t about to self-harm. My suspicion back then, borne out by the later complete and utter inactivity of the teaching staff regarding home-schooling, was that this was an attempt to soften up the parents to the prospect of the teachers doing pretty much no work whatsoever for the remainder of the year. But then it wasn’t just the kids who were going to go berserk. Covid restrictions would compel the rest of us to do so, too.

None of this happened. None of it. In November the British Medical Journal, in its editorial, examined suicide rates for the year in a number of ‘high income’ countries. It did so in order to investigate ‘widely reported studies modelling the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on suicide rates [that] predicted increases ranging from 1 per cent to 145 per cent, largely reflecting variation in underlying assumptions’. The BMJ looked at a whole bunch of studies and concluded: ‘Reports suggest either no rise in suicide rates (Massachusetts, USA; Victoria, Australia; England) or a fall (Japan, Norway) in the early months of the pandemic.’

The truth is that in general suicide rates in the UK have, with occasional variations, decreased gradually and very slightly since 1981 and Covid lockdowns made no difference to this, so far as we can tell by now. Of course, suicide is not the only consequence of impaired mental health. As laymen, we might class it as an extreme example, and group it together with other extreme behaviour. But extreme though they might be, suicide stats do have the benefit of being empirical, quantifiable and, in short, real. They are different, then, from those statistics which devolve simply from asking people if they feel a bit depressed, down in the mouth, pissed off etc and if they are consequently taking medication or receiving counselling for this state of disconsolation.

We live in a perpetual tizzy about our nation’s mental health — largely a consequence, I suspect, of us all being too affluent and comfortable and not having enough other stuff to worry about. Depression, stress and misery are all undoubtedly on the rise — there are many (largely subjective) studies which will confirm this. It is a constant fugue of our times that we are all becoming deranged somehow and that, paradoxically, mental health problems are not treated with sufficient seriousness, despite an enormous increase in our spending on them in schools and the NHS.

We worry about what might be causing this epidemic of lunacy, and while, obviously, the government with its chimeric cuts is largely to blame, we also point the finger at the alienating effects of social media. Another study suggests that this notion is hogwash. An abstract published this week in Clinical Psychological Science, and involving adolescents from the UK, found absolutely no correlation between increased use of modern technology and thus social media with a growth in mental health problems. The authors cannily pointed out that similar forecasts of mental impairment had been made when the wireless first made its appearance and, later, television. We no longer think that TV is damaging to the mental health of our children (unless they watch Newsnight), despite the fact that they still watch as much of it as they did before. Every technological advance seems to make us convinced that our children, if they take advantage of it, will go mad. It is never true.

But then how do we explain the undoubted rise in mental afflictions? I wonder a little if over-diagnosis might be at least partly to blame. In the past few decades the mental health industry — one of our most vibrant and growing concerns — has demanded that mental health be stripped of the stigma once attached to it and banished stigma-laden words such as ‘mental’, ‘psycho’, ‘deranged’ and ‘loony’ — all words I have used in this article. Stigma, though, is a useful form of both societal and individual control. But they have gone further and made impaired mental health something to aspire to, bizarre though that may seem. Our children are taught that being depressed is, in good old Laingian fashion, a rational response to a cruel world and that having some sort of mental ‘condition’ is kind of commendable. If you build it, they will come.

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