Mental Illness: Not A Personal Failing, A Social Failing

As campaigners encourage the world to recognize mental illness as a biological, rather than moral, failing, we must be vigilant in not diminishing the significance of social and political factors.

The UK’s mental health campaigning is the envy of the world.  In Time to Change we have the world’s largest campaign to tackle mental health stigma. With the likes of Mind and Rethink, we have some of the most influential mental health charities. The UK paves the way in teaching that mental illness does not infer moral baggage, and opposing views are rightly condemned as remnants of archaic bigotry.

Being at the front of the curve of public opinion isn’t easy. It means managing the tensions between narrative and truth; between popular ideas and the more subtle nuances of reality. Of late, the mental health narrative has tended towards the view that mental illness is biological and unavoidable, and whilst there is some truth in that, it’s not the whole truth.

Campaigners often liken mental illness to physical diseases such as cancer. The point they make is that, like cancer, mental illness isn’t a choice and isn’t a reflection on the character of the person who’s suffering. These statements are true, and awareness of them lifts the burden of responsibility off the individual. But, crucially, they also lift responsibility off communities and societies – something we need to be increasingly aware of. Because communities do have a responsibility, and I don’t just mean with the provision of mental health services.

The basis of mental health may be hard-wired, but it’s at the mercy of our social, political, and economic environment. Having our freedoms taken from us cannot cause cancer. Nor is there a direct link between debt and cancer, or social isolation and cancer. But these things can aggravate mental health problems and push us into depression, and they are conditions that communities, institutions and governments determine. We must not forget this.

Every time we compare mental illness to cancer, we do a good and a bad. We do good by dispelling the ‘moral myth’ of mental illness, but we are also implying that we are prisoners of neurochemistry. By implying that our environments are irrelevant, a message that starts as an attempt to give people more of a sense of control, paradoxically, accomplishes the reverse.

Control is at the heart of the relationship between mental health and politics. To the degree that politics is about exercising control over our situation, as Hunter S. Thompson once suggested, mental health is as much a matter of politics as it is biology. When we feel like we lack control over our situations, we are more susceptible to depression. If the situation persists, depression is an inevitability. Just as poison to the body, tear down the conditions that enable me to retain a sense of control and my mental health will suffer. But give me cause to hope for a better future and I can persist.

Those of us with concern for increasing rates of mental illness have a choice to make. We can continue to diminish social and political factors by attributing the rapidly increasing global burden of depression to the influence of chemicals in the water, or air pollution.  Or we can make a point of acknowledging that our communities and institutions are not structured in a way that is conducive to psychological wellbeing and that we need to be prepared to push for radical political measures that address this.

The issue is one of social progress and evolution, and it starts with the way we talk about mental health. Attitudes towards mental health are constantly evolving, and a necessary part of this evolution is to go through a stage of seeing mental illness through a biological lens. Of course emotion and cognitive functioning is seated in the brain. And of course genetics and trauma can predispose or tip us into mental illness. But it doesn’t end there, and if the narrative fails to encompass a due recognition of social and political factors, then, individually and communally, we risk navigating into precisely the conditions most harmful to us.

Canada: Huge survey into student mental health forces action

In a survey of more than 30,000 post-secondary school students in Canada, across 34 institutions, 9.5% of respondents stated that they had “seriously considered taking their own lives in the past year”, The Province and The Star reported. A guide has been released to help institutions take action.

The survey, which was led by the Canadian Organization of University and College Health, also indicated that 89% of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed by “all they had to do”, 54% reported feeling hopeless during the last 12 months, and 64% had felt lonely. The survey findings echo a similar survey from NUS in the United Kingdom, in which 13% of the 1,200 respondents reported having had suicidal thoughts.

Following the release of the survey, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the Canadian Association of Colleges and University Student Services (CACUSS) has launched a guide to help institutions take action to address student mental health using a “systemic” approach. The guide is based on three years of work, and input from hundreds of professionals and students.

Campaigners urge government to act on children’s wellbeing

A new UK mental health charity has called for more to be done to support children’s mental health after a YouGov poll indicated that one in five children show symptoms of depression, the BBC reports. The story follows increasing concerns (which we reported here) about young people’s mental health in the UK and internationally.

Mindfull, an online mentoring and counselling service for 11-17 year olds launched today by the BeatBullying Group, has urged that mental health needs to be added to school curriculums, but there are question marks about where the expertise to deliver such classes could come from. Since 2000, schools in the UK have been expected to teach children about mental health through PSHE, but the program has been criticised for neglecting mental health, and an Ofsted report in May noted that PSHE teachers were lacking “subject-specific training and support.”

There are a number of British schools – notably, Wellington College – that deliver emotional wellbeing classes, and in 2007, 90 teachers in schools across three regions were trained to deliver classes in emotional resilience as part of a pilot programme backed by the Department for Education – although it was not rolled out beyond the pilot. The government is yet to make further commitments to funding mental health training in schools.

The YouGov poll, which, according to reports, also indicates that a third of young people have considered suicide, raises questions about the causes of children’s mental health problems. Earlier this year, Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset, suggested that students’ wellbeing was being damaged by excessive emphasis on grades. It’s an issue that’s being recognised in other countries. Last week it was reported that educational reforms in China are set to shift emphasis away from testing over concerns about the impact that narrow methods of evaluation were having on students’ mental health.

In 2005 the UK’s Department for Education introduced SEAL in primary schools, which encourages a “whole school approach to promoting social and emotional skills”, but a 2010 report from the Department of Education showed mixed results, and concerns have been raised recently that the government’s emphasis on exam results has been pressuring schools to give up SEAL.

Note: Free resources for teachers wanting to deliver mental health classes are available through Young Minds, here. Children and parents concerned about mental health can also access information and helpline details through Young Minds. Further resources and information about mental health, and helplines, are available through Mind