The time is ripe for concerted action on mental health care

Germanwings co-pilot kept deadly mental illness secret from bosses”. Just one headline from an onslaught of tabloid articles that fuels negative association with mental health issues.

Mental illness should not be a way of wholly justifying one’s actions just as much as it should not be used as an excuse to single someone out. We cannot understand the thoughts that were going through Lubitz head during the disaster; nor should we attempt to villainise or victimise his actions. It is easy to cast aspersions on Lubitz’s character in the light of his depression and his actions regarding the destruction of the sick note from his doctor. Clearly no-one believes this behaviour or the actions involving the crash can be justified; but surely a more open and understanding society, in relation to mental health, would go a long way to encourage sufferers of these illnesses to speak up and not be afraid to inform employers.

The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Simon Wessely, has urged caution on people suffering from depression being prevented from working as pilots, he states that “what does cause trouble is saying that if you have ever had a history of depression then you should not be allowed to do whatever. That is wrong, as much as saying that people with a history of broken arms shouldn’t be allowed to do something”. It comes as a voice of reason in a barrage of negative mental illness-related statements on Twitter, from personalities – or lack thereof – such as Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins. It is true that as a society Britain has come a long way in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues, though this could be in jeopardy if ignorant and toxic comments from public figures are allowed to multiply unchallenged.

A further step in the right direction comes this week from the Liberal Democrats, who have pledged £2bn extra for mental health funding in the party’s “manifesto for the mind”. Whether you agree with their politics or not, this is a pledge that all parties should be promising. Ruby Wax at a Ted Talk conference in Edinburgh in 2012 made a brilliant stand throughout her talk “What’s so funny about mental illness?” Currently one in four people will be suffering from mental illness to some degree. What’s even more frightening is that many of these cases are still undiagnosed and the overall number of mental illness cases is set to rise, dramatically. Now this may appear melodramatic, especially to the people who don’t view mental illness as a genuine health concern. As Ruby Wax cleverly informs her audience, how is it that every other organ in your body can get sick and you’ll get sympathy, except the brain? The human brain is ill-equipped to deal with the continuously mutating pressures of the 21st century. And even when it is accepted as a serious condition the lack of sympathy does not stop there.

Although I don’t doubt that there are a great number of health professionals that treat mental illness with the seriousness it deserves, there is still much to be improved upon as mental health is such a multifaceted issue. It may seem common sense to doctors that exercise increases serotonin output in the brain, thus lifting ones mood; this should not be the only advice given to someone who expects they are suffering with mental illness (and yes, this has been the case before).

The courage alone that it takes to make an appointment and then follow through by turning up to said appointment can be huge. For a doctor to then turn round and tell their patient that they just need to exercise more can trivialise the issue and shatter any remaining confidence the patient may have.

Mental illness is a vastly complex topic, with cases set to increase in the coming decades; but this doesn’t mean that we should shy away from discussing it, in public, without fear of ridicule. Due to this I don’t believe that there will ever be a one-answer-solves-all-solution; efforts should not only be focused on changing the attitudes of the public but health professionals too; then we will stand a much stronger chance of establishing a surge in progress for mental health treatment.


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July 2021
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