Time To Talk

I first started writing about mental health - badly, clumsily and shakily - several years ago. I've always tweeted about my own life, but never with the idea of "mental health" at the forefront of my mind, even if now I look back at desperate, 4am tweets from 2012 and wonder why I didn't see myself as somebody who might need help. After a particularly bad psychotic episode, which started with my believing somebody had been breaking into my university halls room to use my shower when I wasn't there and ended up with me not leaving bed for three days because I believed that I was dead, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I might actually be "mentally ill".

So I started blogging - anonymously at first, and then more publicly to approximately six readers on a badly designed (now thankfully defunct) Wordpress blog. I talked to people online about it, too - a little secret cabal where we'd talk about treatment and medication and make fun of stupid things our care workers or therapists had said. We often talked about politics. 

Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. My own career is evidence of that - though I also write about gender and science and tech, and love to do so, my work is overwhelmingly about mental health. I'm hardly rolling in money, but a career like mine simply wouldn't have been possible five years ago. There's an appetite for it now, a marked shift in the way that publications want to cover mental health, and how much they want to do so. Charities who have been helping mentally ill people for years are gaining more traction, bigger campaigns, more coverage. Mentally ill people are here to stay, my friends, and my god are we ready for our close up. 

Out of this discourse has emerged one particularly prominent issue: stigma. I've written about it myself: here, for The Pool, and here, for Huck Magazine, if you're interested. Campaigns like Time to Talk, billboard and online campaigns from the Samaritans and other charities, even celebrities sharing their own experiences: all aimed at making people feel less ashamed of their mental health problems and more willing to seek help. 

A focus on stigma is good, valid and important. I strongly believe that and will never criticise anyone who chooses to focus both on stigma and on the way that it impacts upon people's real lives, careers and relationships. But what I'd also like to see mental health campaigners do is talk about politics, and to get politically engaged.

One of the key tenets of tackling stigma is increasing people's willingness to seek help for their mental health problems. This is a particularly important issue for men: men are far less likely to talk about depression, something charities like CALM are rightly taking on. But I'd raise the question: what if you ask for help and it's not there?

That, unfortunately, is the case for many people. The NHS, which the Conservative government seem so intent on carving up, is under immense strain in every area - you've probably all seen the Red Cross call conditions in the NHS a "humanitarian crisis", something Jeremy Hunt unconvincingly denies. As I wrote for the New Statesman, "anyone who has spent time on a psychiatric ward, or even tried to get a timely referral to NHS therapy services, will know that there are serious structural problems". 

There's also the caving in of the welfare system: people are not only dying en masse because of current cuts to the benefits system but also killing themselves. Local NHS trusts are given smaller and smaller budgets with which to administer mental healthcare, but finding themselves using the funds for other things because they simply do not have enough money to cover both primary and secondary care. Teenagers are being sent halfway across the country, away from friends and family, to CAMHS wards in places they've never even heard of because of lack of inpatient beds. Out of hours community care has been cut in line with broader cuts to the NHS, leading to the number of people turning up to A&E with psychiatric emergencies rising to 20,000 a year in 2015 - a situation I myself was put in when no adequate care was available elsewhere. The list goes on. 

What is clear here is that mental healthcare in the UK is undergoing significant, devastating strain, that this strain is impacting mentally ill people, and that those two things are inextricably linked to governmental policy. This is why Theresa May's repeated use of the word "solidarity" in her speech a few weeks ago bothered me so much - why, in fact, it made me absolutely furious. Because politicians like her - right wing politicians, specifically - are using ideas like stigma as a way to avoid practical and structural problems that they continue to exacerbate through thoughtless, illiberal policy implementation.

Where's her solidarity for people who have killed themselves because their benefits have been unfairly taken away? Where's her solidarity for people with chronic mental health conditions, mired in a bureaucratic system that seems designed merely to "get them back to work" and "increase their productivity" rather than to help them stay safe and stable? Where's her solidarity for the people who work in these services, who are watching their wards or their clinics or their teams being absolutely destroyed by budget cuts? Where's her solidarity for people of colour with mental health problems, more likely to be detained by the police than given appropriate psychiatric care? An article in the British Medical Journal found that there are "no properly commissioned mental health services in Yarl's Wood", a detention centre she herself oversaw as the Home Secretary. Where's her solidarity for the women and children unfairly detained there? 

Caring about these things is solidarity. But for Theresa May and her ilk, "solidarity" is just a meaningless buzzword you can roll out in an attempt to distract from wider structural problems. For those of us who are desperately in need not only of support but of solidarity, it's offensive at best and devastating at worst. 

I understand why charities can't condemn whole political parties or movements – they don't want to alienate anyone, for one thing, and they need to work apolitically alongside whichever party is in power. I would never expect for a second for CEOs of large charities to come out against any political party or figure. No matter how they feel about austerity measures or political policies - they simply can't. 

But many of us don't have to tread so carefully, and we shouldn't. Those of us who really do care about solidarity, about marginalised groups, about people with non-media friendly conditions like personality disorders or schizophrenia, about anyone with mental health problems: we need to remember that, beyond all shadow of a doubt, mental health is political.