This Movember, Let’s Recognise The Volunteer Mental Health Groups Filling The Gaping Hole Of This Government’s Scandalous Neglect

Austerity costs lives. Turn to men’s mental health and you’ll see how. The shattering regret, heartbreak and tears on thousands of faces. Those are the faces of mothers, fathers, siblings, sons and daughters, who can no longer see those eyes. Those are the eyes of thousands of men below 50, eyes once burning with ambition and pride, only to fade away, falling through the cracks of a broken system. That’s a system made of waiting lists, denialscries of wolf to deaf ears, and a failure to provide support, a voice, at the critical hours. It was then, every two hours in Britain last year, that a man took his life.

It’s a national tragedy. Between 2011 and 2016, a heartbreaking £105 million has been slashed in real terms from England’s mental health budget. Conservative government ministers sat in meetings and drew up this sickening list of priorities. This despite the male suicide rate rocketing between 2010 and 2013 at a rate unseen in nearly three decades.“We had to make some tough choices after the mess Lab-” yes we’ve heard the narrative, the fantasy story, enough times. But let’s be clear: Britain’s scandalous current mental health crisis is the result of political decision. Most prominent has been the spiralling inequality since 2010, building a country fit not for the future but for misery, a “punitive, mean-spirited and callous” countryfuelled by a devastating belief that community and compassion are for the birds – that’s the UN’s judgement not mine. Of the 5,821 suicides in the UK last year, three quarters were men.Many of those men could still be with us today.

It’s not just about funding, it’s about services targeting the needs of men. It’s when 271 vulnerable people with mental health difficulties pass away after going through NHS services, that we must realise that the current system is simply not grasping the complexity of men’s mental health. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition – so why is it disproportionately men who commit suicide? At a Sheffield Students’ Union guest lecture last week, campaigner and academic Brendan Stone and sociologist Will Mason were clear: our most vulnerable men desire community, and fall away from it very easily. In Will’s research into men’s mental health, the disappearance of pubs was “lamented”. Pubs are “like a church”, Brendan added, where men can meet, relax and connect. In Sheffield, a city that had its heart ripped out by deindustrialisation, the added impact of austerity and the resulting loss of this social infrastructure has been devastating. But pubs are just one victim of this cruel belief in individualism.

Mass budget cuts since 2010 have hit hardest those local authorities that were already most deprived.They’ve had to carry on funding the ringfenced areas such as child protection, so what gets cut? The early intervention services, like youth centres, community centres, and mental health services. Closed and gone. The spiral is catastrophic, like the 1,000 more pupils excluded from English state schools between 2016 and 2017. With the essential social network of school lost, the lapse into drug abuse, homelessness and violent crime is a well-trodden path. It is at this point when men need those community spaces and services to pick them up and prevent them falling through the net even further. But they’ve disappeared so we, men, are left with the palpable sense of feeling alone, folding into ourselves, with no voice and nobody to listen.

Sometimes careless governance brings out the best in people. Thousands of volunteer mental health groups and projects have sprouted in towns and cities across Britain, filling the cracks of a broken system. With the debate so focused on the national picture, the work of these local projects can be forgotten. Will volunteers at Unity Gym in Sheffield but it is community, not just weights, that fills the space. Trying to tackle the feeling of isolation in Broomhall, a troubled area of the city, the gym finds it better to let men choose how much they want to say, rather than forcing feelings out. The choice is empowering for them.

Then there’s the battle over ‘racialised’ men’s mental health. The moment violence erupts in Sheffield, a certain stigmatised racial group are plastered across The Sheffield Star, branded as ‘hoods’ – a label that these young people can all too easily internalise, falling into exclusion and the mental health spiral. But Will told me it’s these very young people who go along to the community homework club he volunteers at, cracking the stigma, resilient and determined to make a success of themselves. Brendan is involved with Sheffield Flourish, a charity running pioneering social enterprises to tackle mental health at the root – simple things like the ‘Open Door Music Group’, where anyone can come along to jam, be happy, and feel included. Our government has turned its back on the most vulnerable, but these volunteers are inspiring; they’re doing nothing less than saving lives.

Our hollowed out society is full of cracks, and many more young men have needlessly fallen through them since you began reading this. It shouldn’t be down to volunteers to compensate for a careless, despicable neglect of mental health among the people running this country. But we must recognise and respect these incredible groups in our campaign to end this national tragedy. Our efforts must outlast Movember, because no longer can Britain let the burning eyes of its young men fade.

@ewansomerville

 

It’s time to rethink mental health

North Devon Journal, April 2016

Young people in Britain are the victims of a mental health crisis, and those in the South West are some of the hardest hit. New government proposals pledge to ignite change, but what is the reality of this scandal?

In light of a new damning independent taskforce report on the mental health provision provided by the NHS, David Cameron has urged people to focus their attention on the issue.

The ‘Five Year Forward View’ report found that one in 10 children aged 5-16 in Britain have a diagnosable mental health problem, and conduct disorder is the most common. This condition doubles the chance of children leaving school without qualifications and means they are 20 times more likely to end up behind bars.

The report also found that unnecessary suicidal deaths reached a record high in 2014 – at nearly 5,000 – and represent the greatest cause of death for those aged 15-49.

Furthermore it said “most children and young people get no support”, and the lucky few currently have a 32 week wait for routine psychological therapy appointments.

This is incredibly upsetting, particularly for myself, knowing that too many others my age are suffering behind closed doors, even after they’ve tried to open them.

Dubbed the ‘Cinderella service’ of the NHS, mental health care costs the economy £105bn a year, roughly the cost of the entire NHS.

In practice, the NHS spends a mere £9.2bn on the sector each year. Following the recommendations of the report, the Prime Minister is pledging an extra £1bn to the sector by 2020-21.

David Cameron said: “We have not done enough to end the stigma of mental health” and added the country has “focused a lot on physical health”, but not sufficiently on mental health. Perhaps, Mr Cameron, we should have been “frank” six years ago? These measures are cold comfort for the thousands of families whose members’ lives have been “put on hold or ruined”, as the report considers, through the lack of basic care for the mentally ill.

Young people facing acute mental health issues currently have three possible destinations: a specialist treatment centre, an accident and emergency department, or a police cell. Figures from the Department of Health highlight that on 52 days since April 1 2015, there were no beds available at these local centres. It’s been found that as a consequence, 10 out of the 18 NHS trusts that provided data on the issue had sent children more than 150 miles away from home for crisis care.

Liberal Democrat MP and former Health Minister Norman Lamb, who has personal experience of mental health, said “it is extremely distressing for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis to be sent far from home, just to get the treatment they need. It is essential that there are beds available for those who need them.”

NHS statistics also show that the number of children going to A&E with psychiatric conditions has doubled to nearly 20,000 a year since 2011. One young sufferer recently told Inside Out South West that A&E is “very exposed, incredibly vulnerable and very unsafe.”

However as Dr Anne Hicks, an emergency medicine consultant at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, explained, this is a chain of failures. With the specialist treatment centers at full capacity, young people are taken to A&E for therapy. But with A&E no longer able to cope with the demand, the pressure is shifted to the police. Last year over 160 young people in the South West were detained in police cells under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. In most of these cases, there was nowhere else for the patients to go.

Devon and Cornwall Police had the highest incidence of these detentions, and last year the Crime Commissioner for the force wrote to NHS bosses explaining that this situation cannot continue. He said that in future the police would take these young people to A&E instead.

Clearly, the system is at breaking point and the government’s proposed £1bn investment is unlikely to go far. So what is the solution?

It begins by raising awareness and tackling the stigma attached to mental health; charities such as Mind and Rethink Mental Illness work endlessly to achieve this.

Years & Years front man Olly Alexander recently opened up about his battles with anxiety in an interview with the Guardian. As one young fan put it: “Just talking about it has allowed people who are affected to feel more comfortable – to feel they’re not alone.”

Perhaps, when more of society supports these young people, the government will too.

By Ewan Somerville | @ewansomerville