Opinion

A suicide prevention minister won't solve the mental health crisis

Posted by
Heidi Scrimgeour
Published

What use is another minister when people in crisis are still waiting months for life-saving treatment?

I cried this morning. Over the news, of all things. Specifically, the news that Theresa May has appointed a suicide prevention minister for England.

That’s just what happens when you’ve lost friends to suicide – the grief creeps up on you when you least expect it. Even good news sometimes only serves to remind you of what wasn’t there for them.

“That’s just what happens when you’ve lost friends to suicide – the grief creeps up on you when you least expect it.”

We’ve changed the world irrevocably through World Mental Health Day. The cruel words we chucked around the playground as insults have no place in the playgrounds that my children are growing up in. We speak differently because we know better. It’s wonderful, but it’s not enough.

My fear is that we’re in danger of making mental illness sexy. Anxiety is almost cool. Depression helps sell books. Mental health has made the movies. Now, we’ve even got a minister for suicide prevention.

But some mental health narratives don’t make good stories. There aren’t always happy endings. The drugs often simply do not work. Sometimes talking makes no difference, and self-care is utterly ineffective against psychosis.

I worry that we think ‘job done’ because we’re unafraid to talk about mental illness anymore. But very little has changed since those dark playground days for those who will never write books or articles about their mental health or be interviewed on TV about their battle with depression. Yes, we’ve come a long way. But it’s not nearly far enough.

“I worry that we think ‘job done’ because we’re unafraid to talk about mental illness anymore.”

We don’t need more government ministers tackling the taboo of mental health. The taboo we need to tackle is the state of disrepair this government has allowed mental health services to fall into.

May says that ending mental health stigma will “prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives”. But according to The National Audit Office, mental health services for children and young people will fall “well short” of demand even if the government delivers on its promise to provide an extra £1.4bn in funding, in part because of staff shortages.

The number of NHS beds available for those with acute mental illness has fallen by nearly a third since 2009. In 2015, funding for mental health services was cut by 8% and, earlier this year, research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) revealed that mental health trusts still have less funding than they did in 2012. 

And what about the rest of the UK? Where I live in Northern Ireland, more people have ended their lives since the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago than were killed in political violence throughout the Troubles.

My teens don’t need a minister for suicide prevention to know how to talk about their mental health. They’re already mental health literate thanks to YouTuber role models who don’t give taboos a second thought. But what good is giving wellbeing workshops in schools and encouraging people to open up if there are no services for young people to turn to when a mental health crisis hits?

“The number of NHS beds available for those with acute mental illness has fallen by nearly a third since 2009.”

When crippling anxiety engulfed me and I begged my GP for something to make ‘all the feelings stop’, I left with a prescription for medication but waited eight months before reaching the top of the counselling queue. I was lucky – I’ve heard of longer waiting lists. But eight months is still 246 days too long to leave anyone in crisis.

I cried this morning because I know exactly what my friends would have said to this. They’d say we don’t need more bums on seats in Westminster to tackle suicide, or any more glossy, press-friendly meetings around cabinet tables or yet more boxes ticked under ‘do something about mental health’ on Theresa May’s to do list.

We need sustainable transformation of mental health services and provision throughout the United Kingdom. We needed it while my friends were still alive – and I’ll keep shouting about how much we need it until someone, somewhere, takes action to put an end to the funerals we should never have to attend.

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Mind also provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. We campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding. You can find more information on their website.

All images: Getty