One of the benefits of having more time on my hands over the past 12 months has been the chance to spend more time with my mother. She is in her 80s and suffers from dementia, so she lives in a lovely care-home where she is looked after 24/7. Gradually though, my mother is disappearing from us. While this is a source of great sadness to the people who love her, I can only guess how difficult and confusing it must be for her as her abilities, her memory of people, and her understanding of what is going on around her all begin to degrade.
Of course, we are not alone in this experience. As Bill Gates recently pointed out, Alzheimer’s (which is one of dementia’s variants) is the only disease in the Western world’s top 10 that has no cure, despite decades of research. While I applaud and support the efforts that Bill Gates and others are making to highlight the issue and fund developments in this area, many drug companies are now pulling back, or withdrawing from ongoing research in this area.
As a result of ageing populations, incidences of the varying forms of dementia are only likely to increase. So, until dementia prevention is a reality, the fight must continue.
I saw a TED talk given by a brave young lady who is preparing for the eventuality of dementia. Her father suffers from the condition, and since there appears to be some hereditary link, she has started learning simple yet enjoyable physical tasks (in her case, origami) which she will still be able to do if she is afflicted too. (Very often, other pleasures like reading or watching TV become more difficult, and even a source of anxiety for patients with dementia). While this young lady is not in a position to prevent such an outcome, she is at least preparing for it in the right ways.
Dementia is just one of many issues that can affect our mental health. These issues can be with us through all our lives – sometimes without us, or the people around us, even knowing. The statistics are staggering;
- The World Health Organisation reported that in 2013, there were some 615m recorded cases of depression or anxiety. Current figures estimate that 1-in-4 adults in Britain will experience diagnosable mental health issues, but of those, only 230 out of every 300 would visit a GP.
- Reports also suggest that one in ten young people are affected by mental health issues. When you consider the inexorable rise of social media use by young people, and the incidences of online bullying, this figure looks set to go on rising.
- The Mental Health Foundation suggests that some 70 million work days are lost every year in the UK because of mental health issues.
- In 2016, an independent mental health task force commissioned by the NHS in England calculated a cost of £105bn to the economy as a result of mental health issues, and a further cost to the NHS of £34bn to treat it (this excludes dementia or substance abuse).
- What of the human cost? The Office for National Statistics registered 5965 suicides in the UK in 2016. This was a decrease on the previous year, but nevertheless, that equates to a heart-breaking 114 suicides a week, of which 75% were men.
Treating a problem of this magnitude requires a massive effort. I can’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know that, whether you look at the cost in human terms, or in financial terms, it is imperative for our society to support, act, and provide the treatment that so many people need so badly.
Furthermore, we desperately need a change in attitude. Despite all the attention given, and the advocacy by people in the public eye (members of the Royal Family, celebrities, business leaders and politicians), mental health still carries a great stigma. While few would ever openly admit to discrimination against those who have opened up to their mental health issues, it still happens.
Collectively and individually, we need to treat our mental health the same as we treat our physical health. Many of us are quite prepared to spend on personal trainers and sports clubs for ourselves and our children. Schools have sports programmes and pride themselves on their achievements. So why shouldn’t we be prepared to make the same commitments to our mental health? Why shouldn’t we have coaches providing support through our educational and professional careers, and why shouldn’t mental health be just as important a part of the school curriculum as any other subject?
As far as schools are concerned, there is a growing movement to address mental health. This isn’t simply an issue of dealing with the pressure of exams, but also dealing with the tricky issue of online interaction, bullying, and the pressures of conforming to idealistic roles and behaviours etc.
Recently, I had the great opportunity to meet with, and discuss the work of, the Shaw Mind Foundation, which does magnificent work in promoting greater understanding around mental health issues and is pushing the ‘thought’ agenda on the topic. They led a campaign to have the issue of mental health education made compulsory in schools, resulting in the Government’s 2017 Green Paper. They also recognise the need for further involvement in the mental wellbeing agenda for the private sector, and I agree that companies should have a responsibility to provide mental health support in structured programmes for all employees.
It stands to reason that if we are able to manage our mental wellbeing from an early age, and if we are prepared to accept and give help, this will pay dividends across the generations. It is only by being constantly vigilant and nurturing of our mental health that we will begin to win this battle.
Mental health is a vast subject. No one article can do it justice, but it is the weight of public opinion and advice that gives us the answers we need.
I believe the message is clear: prevention is so much better than cure. While we may never eradicate mental illness, we can help people understand it better, deal with it sooner, and give people the hope they can get better.
We need to get everyone on board with this. My reach might be small, but when linked to yours, it expands exponentially. So please, forward this, and let’s push this agenda out there. By putting your own thoughts and experiences on paper, and by talking openly about these issues and articulating what we want for our future generations’ mental health, we can make a difference.
By Patrick Gahan