Good grief, I’ve got a supporter. Well, not really a supporter, but someone very important agrees with what I have been saying about mental health. It’s GOD himself.
When I say GOD, I don’t mean the bearded chap who is the main character in the bible, I mean Lord Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary and head of the civil service. When I was a civil servant, I used to get lots of emails from him. Mainly it was usual rubbish you get from the top of the shop – “Thank you for your great efforts this year. As I reward, we are going to cut your pay as well as making you pay more and work longer for a pension that will be much worse than the one you thought you were going to get”, you know the kind of thing – but on the rare occasions senior officials would meet the great unwashed at the sharp end, they would usually say what a decent chap he was.
O’Donnell points out some staggering facts about mental health: one in six adults in the USA and Europe suffers from depression or “a crippling anxiety disorder”. Mental health accounts for almost half of all days off sick and half of people on disability benefits. A World Health Organisation study found mental health and child disorders account for 38% of the global cost of illness.
And he cuts right through the crap in his analysis: “Immediately, that says to me, former head of the Treasury, boy, we’re missing a trick here. If, by tackling mental health issues you can reduce sickness, first of all you’re starting to put our productivity up and people are at work,” adding that, “by the time somebody’s got a severe depression, that’s failure.”
Hard to believe that until 2011 he was in charge of a a public service mentality that positively frowned on anyone suffering from mental illness to the extent that for many years – in my case a near lifetime – many of us were scared to even mention it fear of the inevitable detrimental effects it would have on a job. I shall look generously on him and suggest that as the titular head of the civil service, he merely led whilst his underlings launched near warfare on struggling members of staff, but that’s neither here nor there. He’s learned and listened.
Mental health accounts for almost half of all days off sick and roughly half of those on disability benefits, so can you imagine the cost to the exchequer and the nation, never mind the human cost? The fact that one in four children and one in three adults gets no help with mental health issues is shocking in the extreme – O’Donnell calls it “offensive” and quite right too.
Tellingly, O’Donnell then says this: “Society judges people who’ve got mental health problems as deficient or incapable of doing certain things. When you’re considering, do I come out or not? If you think, by coming out, you’ll be the subject of huge prejudice, you don’t.” How absolutely true. My fear throughout my working life was that I’d be “found out” and be disposed of. Don’t forget that especially recently, public sector workers experience extremely harsh rules on sickness at work and my experience is that mental health is rarely taken seriously and those who are suffering are often treated much worse than others. And why? Because managers don’t believe it’s real. Regardless of how many diagnoses you get from professionals, what you really need to do is pull yourself together and just get on with it. I was told that by one manager, to stop feeling sorry for myself and get back to work. Some others were not so kind (and I am not joking).
We’ve tried everything else with mental health, We’ve explained how damaging it is to the individual – and there are an awful lot of individuals who are suffering – but still we carry on as before, throwing drugs at many people to deal with some of the consequences, but society is just firefighting. So we need to move the argument to the Thatcherite bottom line: what does it cost society? It’s a shame such a major subject has to come back to money but that’s all politicians ever listen to, but that is where we are. If it really is true that the financial effects of mental health on our economy really do run into the many billions, then it really would be a huge dereliction of government duty to do nothing about it.
Mental health treatments, targeted at the individual, do work. They can stop a small problem becoming a bad one, a bad one becoming a worse one and a worse one becoming an insoluble one.
Wonderfully, O’Donnell describes early intervention as “a no brainer”, but I am not criticising him for his use of words. In fact, I welcome his conversion to my way of thinking and I hope his intelligent and logical words get through to the politicians who ignore the problems of mental health to the detriment of our nation, not least those who are ill.