Why we need to reboot our thinking on mental health in 2021

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2020 has been a year like no other. It has been a watershed year in terms of public health.

The pandemic has challenged us as individuals, and as a nation in ways we didn’t think possible.

What the pandemic has meant for mental health

Most of us have found new ways to cope, but we’ve also seen the pandemic make clear a truth we already knew well – that unequal life chances drives poor health, and risk. It is now a matter of public knowledge that some people are more at risk of getting COVID-19 or having a more severe course of illness than others. 

The same is true in mental health. Our research study, Mental Health in the Pandemic started just before lockdown, has tracked the public’s mental health throughout this year. We have found that people facing uncertainty, disadvantage, discrimination, and unemployment are experiencing the most impact on their mental health. Those with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions, young people, people from diverse racial communities, and those who have experienced loss and isolation have been some of the worst affected.

Many of us have struggled with tighter restrictions in midwinter and have found it harder to cope. More of us are now facing increased financial and employment worries because of the pandemic. With news of vaccines being rolled out comes hope, but that hope must be held in gentle hands, given the long tail of social and economic consequences that could increase disparities in health further.

Certainly, the mental health impact of this crisis is likely to long outlast the physical one and we must go into 2021 with that in mind.

We must focus on mental health prevention

With a greater understanding of public health, and a huge need for mental health to be protected and improved, there has never been a more important time to focus on prevention in mental health.

As a nation, we have an opportunity to put mental health at the heart of decisions over how we recover and move forward – whether they are personal decisions, decisions in our jobs and careers, or policy decisions by local and national governments.

To do that we need to really understand how central our mental health is to our lives – a reboot, built on our experiences in the pandemic – would help us all.

It’s still the case that when many people think of mental health, they think of mental illness – of acute conditions that need expert help. But we all have mental health, all the time, and it fluctuates, just like our physical health.

There’s a risk that we move to describe the pain and challenges of grief, change, and isolation we’ve seen in terms of mental illness, when actually for many, what we need is a recognition that distress is part of the human condition, and something we all need to recognise and respond better to.

We must change how we see mental health

We must challenge the idea that only the ‘weak’ struggle with their mental health, and that our mental health is something fixed and unchanging, like the colour of our eyes.

We need to move our thinking forward from framing mental health in binary terms – good or bad, ill or well. Whether we are thinking about ourselves or others the language of mental health matters – it’s too easy to shame, judge, or imply failure or inferiority.

Seeing pain, hearing people’s stories, and holding distress has not been something we’ve been traditionally good at – but it’s something we’ve all done in relation to the pandemic and there are signs that this might be helping change attitudes and behaviours around mental health.  Perhaps this might help us to make the progress needed to reduce the number of people who die by suicide each year, and suicide remains the leading killer of men under 50.  

The mental health system has struggled

As a charity chief executive sitting on government bodies, I see the system struggling to respond to the level of demand on services, and unable to pivot to provide the resources and integrated action needed for coordinated, community-based preventative support.

While public health budgets are cut, libraries closed, youth clubs boarded up and children’s centres closed, we are spending more on crisis care, building more prisons and more hospitals because we haven’t marshalled the political and public commitment to invest long-term in the community assets that keep us well and healthy. 

This is not sustainable.

We need to renew partnerships

Prevention in mental health means renewed and new partnerships, based on local needs, between the NHS, local government, local people and the array of charities, social enterprises, faith groups, early years activities, social and sporting clubs and community workers whose activities safeguard our mental health.

Prevention also means better lives for those living with ongoing mental health problems. It isn’t either/or.

Revolutionising our approach to mental health requires setting bold national targets for improving our wellbeing and placing mental health at the heart of budget setting and policy-making. 

If we accept that our whole lives – including our housing, access to green spaces and the quality of our communities – affect our mental health, then it becomes clear that all parts of government have a responsibility to create the conditions in which people can thrive. 

But it’s not just government that needs to change.

We can all play a role in prevention

We all have a role to play, taking the steps we can support our mental health, reaching out with kindness to ourselves and in our communities.

As an organisation, we have teamed up with partners to invest £2million into preventative community programmes to reach those most affected by the pandemic, to protect and improve mental health going forward. We will focus on reaching three particular groups: single parents, those from diverse racial communities and those with existing mental and physical health conditions.

As we come out of this most difficult of years and into 2021, we want to show that prevention in mental health is not just urgently needed but also represents the best investment we can make for our future health.

We need your help

Our vision is a world with good mental health for all and we want to give people the tools they need to thrive. To help us continue to do this we need your help. Please consider a donation today.

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