Future generations will look back on our efforts to resolve our current ‘mental health’ crisis with a mixture of horror and amusement. I can imagine – in the year 2119 and beyond – social history courses exploring the underlying reasons as to why the so-called civilised societies of the early 21st century treated its distressed citizens so barbarically, ultimately concluding that a reliance on psychiatric pseudoscience and a tolerance of gross human-rights violations were the key factors.
The present focus on ‘mental health’ is unprecedented. A continual stream of media reports highlight failings in the current system, while celebrities and members of the royal family add their voices to the clamour for an expansion of services for the ‘mentally ill’. Although well intentioned, this energy is typically misplaced; we do not require more of the same. The illness-like-any-other approach to human distress, as espoused by Western psychiatry, has been an abject failure. Despite dominating research and practice for over 60 years, this bio-medical paradigm has benefited few and damaged many.
Let’s be clear.
We do NOT need ‘early detection’ in schools that tag more and more children with dubious diagnostic labels.
We do NOT need to drug more and more of our citizens with ‘antidepressants’ and ‘antipsychotics’.
We do NOT need more anti-stigma campaigns that worsen discrimination by implying that the ‘mentally ill’ are a distinct group, inherently different from everyone else.
We do NOT need to waste further millions in bio-genetic research, chasing non-existent ‘mental illness’ genes and the corresponding wonder drug.
So, what do we need to do to resolve the mental health crisis?
An essential pre-requisite is to resoundingly reject the notion that ‘mental illness’ is primarily caused by biological defects. People experiencing high levels of distress and overwhelm – tagged by psychiatry as suffering from such things as ‘depression’, ‘bipolar disorder’, ‘schizophrenia’ – typically do NOT have brain disorders. If all MPs could grasp this central point (and I’d happily direct you to the relevant scientific research to support it) you would be able to start the process of transforming our approach to mental health and make a real difference. No longer stifled by the ‘illness like any other’ delusion, your responsibilities as policy-shapers and resource allocators could be directed towards radically improving the life experiences of our citizens – a sure-fire way to transform the mental health of the nation.
In particular, politicians could use their powers to:
- Stop human rights violations:
The current Mental Health Act represents a form of legalised discrimination, giving those tagged as suffering a ‘mental disorder’ the rights of suspected terrorists. Each day in our country scores of law-abiding citizens, many of who are perfectly capable of making their own decisions, are incarcerated and forced to ingest psychiatric drugs. These routine human-rights violations are largely a direct consequence of a Mental Health Act that wrongly equates ‘mental disorders’ with brain abnormalities and lack of autonomy.
As politicians you have the power to rid our society of the Mental Health Act, this warped piece of legislation. We do not need distinctive ‘mental health’ law; other jurisdictions – Northern Ireland, for example – have already taken this important step. If you are serious about resolving the current crisis in the way we make sense of, and respond to, human distress, we must do likewise.
- Reduce adversity
Typically, a person’s distress and overwhelm is understandable in the context of that individual’s past and present life experiences. (Read the previous sentence again. Let it sink in). Given your role as policy makers, I recognise that this assertion might feel threatening to you, highlighting as it does your responsibility for reducing the level of adversity endured by our citizens. Conversely, acceptance of the fundamental life-experience/distress link offers you the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful in tackling the current mental health crisis.
So stop pontificating about ‘improving treatment of the mentally ill’, and act with vigour and purpose to redirect resources into countering the following societal ills: poverty; inequality; discrimination; domestic violence; homelessness; childhood abuse; bullying; unemployment; alienation and violent crime. You know it makes sense.
- Simplify our approach to distressed people
Substantial improvement in the mental wellbeing of our people will not be realised through the discovery of a new psychiatric drug or individual therapy. The solution is much simpler than that: enable distressed people to promptly access support from compassionate, non-judgmental human beings, preferably those who have had first-hand experience of emotional pain and overwhelm. This initial response need not to be provided by mental health ‘experts’; indeed, it is better if it is offered by people unsullied by psychiatric training that, in the main, continues to peddle the ‘illness like any other’ delusion. For the most part, the essential criterion for the role is a genuine interest in listening to the multi-layered personal stories of those currently suffering.
Harnessing the healing power of human relationships can be achieved in various ways: drop-in centres, staffed by people who have survived emotional challenges of their own; a crisis house (independent from statutory provision) in every town; youth centres utilising the skills of older teenagers with lived experience of distress; social support networks within the workplace; and various peer support and mentoring schemes in schools and colleges. In more severe forms of emotional overwhelm, more intensive support might be required – such as Soteria Houses or Open Dialogue – effective interventions that crucially depend on a combination of human compassion and a curiosity about the sufferer’s individual life story.
So, politicians, you have an opportunity to transform our society’s approach to the enduring mental health crisis, to go down in history as one of the rare legislatures in the Western world who resoundingly rejected the psychiatric pseudo-science and associated human-rights violations. I urge you to grasp this opportunity so that future social commentators will show you respect rather than ridicule.
Dr Gary L. Sidley
Photo courtesy of Bulldogza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net