Are we having a responsible conversation about mental health?
You only have to look at the traction campaigns such as Heads Together, Time To Talk, CALM (and collaborations like the one with Chris Hughes) are getting, and the frequency in which the media are reporting on them to see that conversations about mental health are becoming the norm.
The stats tell us: 1 in 4 of us experience ill mental health, 1 in 5 of us experience suicidal thoughts (although both are likely to be higher) and awareness of mental health and willingness to speak up and speak out about our own experiences is at an all time high.
What’s more, Government are committing to training 1 million people across the UK in mental health first aid by 2021.
And you know something is really shifting when organisations and individuals are able to enter the ‘market’ and make money from mental health — whether they are providing services that arguably government should be, or using their personal story and experiences to positively impact others.
And all of this is great. I am not against any of the above.
The more we talk about mental health, the better.
It leads to a greater sense of connection and belonging, it means we can provide people with the help they need earlier, and most importantly it means we can start to educate our children from a much earlier age about mental wellbeing and how to manage their emotions in an attempt to prevent severe mental health issues later in life.
What I’m questioning is:
Whether this national conversation we are having is a responsible one? And whether there should be stronger safeguards in place for individuals and organisations operating in this space?
Demand vs. supply
It’s all very well encouraging people to be open about their mental health and seek support from their GP, but what happens when the supply of services isn’t there to meet the demand? Or worse, when their GP dismisses their concerns because they ‘don’t do mental health’.
Yes, there’s third sector services and amazing charities like Mind, Samaritans, CALM operating acoss the country but they too can’t cope with the added demand that comes from people seeking help, in a lot of cases as an overflow from the NHS because the waiting list is two to six months. This happens so often in my job at a mental health charity — I pick up the phone to people who have been referred to us from the NHS because they have told them it’s likely they’d get seen quicker with us.
What about language?
Are we looking at the language we are using to report on mental health in the media and other content closely enough?
Some language is triggering, offensive or has the potential to glamorise certain behaviours (for example, suicide). Yet there are no mandatory requirements for media to subscribe to. Time to Change produce a guide on responsible reporting and Natasha Devon does great work in this area — having launched a voluntary media charter providing guidelines for media outlets on how to speak about mental health.
But is this enough if not everyone is signed up?
Then we have new and innovative organisations and individuals (myself included) sharing their mental health stories, encouraging us to open up and providing spaces for people to share theirs (whether via online tools or face-to-face).
Sometimes these spaces are free, sometimes paid. Sometimes they are apps, sometimes talks or workshops. But these new organisations and individuals aren’t held to the same regulatory standards as charities or NHS providers — they have no requirement to meet safeguarding criteria, and in some cases may not even be aware of, or understand safeguarding processes. Of which, there are several.
Now I am all for freedom of speech and talking and sharing openly — it’s what I encourage in the world, and what I do too. But when I stepped back and thought about it, there is the potential for this to become unsafe.
And I realised I too was guilty of not talking as responsibly as I could about mental health.
What happens if, as a result of encouraging open conversations about mental health, you are contacted by someone in crisis — someone who is a danger to themselves, and potentially considering harming themselves or ending their live, and you have no process in place for safeguarding that individual, or no idea of how to handle that situation? What does that mean for that individual’s safety? And for your wellbeing?
This is a very real possibility — it’s happened to me. I drew on the training I have received through ASIST and working within a mental health charity but it made me realise I don’t yet have an official process for how to handle situations like this. But if I were an NHS provider or a charity or a school, I would be required to.
I wholeheartedly believe that opening the conversation around mental health is core to our wellbeing but I also believe we need to make sure we have the right safeguards in place to protect those we are speaking to and encouraging to open up, as well as ourselves.
The more of a ‘sector’ mental health becomes with more opportunities for us to monetise services and provision, the more I believe we need to call on government to ensure that safeguards and regulation are in place to help secure the safety of those we are seeking to help, as well as those organisations and individuals providing these services.
And I too have done something to try to address this in a small way by providing crisis info on my website to help people access services when they are in crisis, or to help people support someone they are concerned about. Because I recognise that if my mission is to talk openly about suicide, then I also need to be responsible in ensuring I can signpost anyone coming across my material to places of safety.