Rachel Kelly is a writer, mental health campaigner, and ambassador for the Big Give. Her latest book is Singing In The Rain: An Inspirational Workbook, published by Short Books, £12.99.
Why might all of us consider helping mental health charities right now? The simple answer is that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a 25 per cent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide.
So says the Mental Health Foundation, a charity and respected source of data on mental health. The numbers who are suffering have gone up, while the NHS’s ability to help has failed to keep pace. And this tsunami of extra mental health problems follows years in which mental health generally has been the poor relation compared to physical health when it comes to funding and decent services.
As a mental health advocate and someone who runs wellbeing workshops in schools and universities, as well as being an ambassador for several mental health charities, including the Big Give, SANE and Rethink Mental Illness, I know what this means on the ground.
That people are desperate. That they need help. That their attempts to get help are often fruitless. That the NHS mental health services are overwhelmed. And that in particular, there is a crisis in mental health services for young people, known as CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).
Social media and patient forums are awash with the reality of long waiting lists for children’s mental health services. As one teacher put it to me: “Many teachers are already able to identify signs of mental problems developing, but where do you suggest teachers refer these children to when you’ve cut mental services?”
Sometimes the only way to get help from mental health professionals is for young people to get to the point where they might take their own lives.
Young girls are especially at risk from mental health problems right now. Dr James Arkell, a consultant psychiatrist at the Nightingale Hospital in central London, says that as many as 40% of 14–25-year-old women have a diagnosable emotional disorder. Yet he goes on to say that only 35% are under active treatment.
These bald statistics conceal terrible heartache. The ashen-faced parents I have met who will never recover after a child’s suicide; The girl who tried to take her own life by drinking bleach after repeatedly trying and failing to get help.
In this gap between demand and supply, the only people who can help are those staffing mental health charities. The only call when you are sure of finding someone on the end of the line is to charities like the Samaritans, or to SANE, which runs a free helpline, or to text a charity like SHOUT, which provides advice.
Mental health charities are scrambling to provide practical help to those in need. When I first became involved in mental health back in 2014, then much of the battle was about stigma, which was where mental health charities focussed much of their firepower.
Ten years ago, the profound sense of shame facing those who suffer from mental health problems was real. I know this to be true as someone who wrote a memoir Black Rainbow about my own experience of two severe depressive episodes in my early thirties, which led to the hospital.
I was working as a journalist at the time, with a husband who worked in financial services and two small children. Overwhelmed, chronic anxiety and insomnia swiftly morphed into clinical depression as my familiar world collapsed around me. I clung to poetry in my darkest hour. Since then, over the years, I have found a toolkit of strategies to manage my own depressive tendencies and to stay calm and well, using everything from nutrition to mindfulness.
The most common response to the book’s publication in 2014 was how brave I was. I doubt I will receive the same response today.
Yes, there are still pockets of stigma. Men, for example, still find it hard to admit to vulnerability and women struggle with voicing their anger, which can often lead to depression. In addition, some with mental health problems still fear losing their jobs, all areas where charities still have a role to play.
But our psychological landscape has changed. Stigma is largely on the wane. This is thanks to battles fought by charities such as Rethink Mental Illness, Heads Together, the Mental Health Foundation, MIND; to Prince Harry and the young royals.
Now charities desperately need funds to help support people with practical help: with counselling services, given those long NHS waiting lists; with support groups; with funds to provide mindfulness training or other ways people can support their mental health, be that learning about the links between mood and food or getting out into nature.
And charities need funding for a second great mental health challenge: the need for proper research. We are still largely in the dark as to what is behind the current mental health crisis.
Yet the budget for research into causation is woefully inadequate. According to the British Medical Association, poor mental health accounts for 23 per cent of the UK disease burden but receives only around 6 per cent of UK medical research spending.
The charity MQ reported in 2019 on mental health research funding. It found that this equates to around £9 spent on research person on mental illness, compared to £228 spent per person on cancer. Oxford and Cambridge Universities and other research organisations are crying out for finance. Where is the equivalent of the Crick Foundation but for mental health?
For all these reasons, the need to fund mental health charities is more evident now than ever in our post-Covid world. To support those who are struggling with their emotional wellbeing. To fund research into these challenges. Maybe one day, there may be a world where there is parity of esteem between mental and physical health. Where there are no waiting lists, and everyone gets the NHS help they need. But while we wait, all of us might consider how we ourselves can make a difference.