It’s been wonderful to see the conversation around mental health open up these past few years. More people are coming forward to say they suffer with mental ill health and, in 2017, a YouGov survey found that 84% of people saw mental illness as serious as physical illness.
Having grown up with the internet and therefore being a digital native, it’s been particularly great to see how those with mental health conditions have used the internet to create communities that support each other, from the Sad Girls Club to hashtags like #mentalhealthhour.
But in seeing this conversation open up it’s easy to generalise and say that society as a whole is dealing with mental health much better. However, seeing this increased honesty online and use of mental health hashtags just further confirms that the onus is still on those who experience mental health issues to break the stigma themselves.
An awareness campaign may use hashtags to get people to ask for help, but what’s next? If somebody is to open up about the mental distress they suffer to only be met with no support services or long waiting lists, does it really help?
Earlier this year it was found that mental health trusts had been left with less funding in real terms than they had in 2012, with experts warning that patients with mental illness are ‘bearing the brunt’ of government cuts to the sector. And though the government pledged in 2015 for an extra £1.4 billion to transform CAMHS, an FOI request from Young Minds showed that nearly two thirds of CCGs had used some or all of that extra money to backfill cuts or to spend on other priorities. Breaking stigma is vital, and I do think social media has been so important in doing so, but we need effective policy to be in place to ensure that once people do speak out, they then don’t get lost in the system.
When they do, there is a real human cost. Journalist Emily Reynolds tweeted this summer about going to A&E in psychiatric crisis and ‘leaving six hours later with nothing except a print out of a webpage titled Are you feeling the strain?’ which led to an outpouring of people having similar experiences.
Using hashtags won’t cover up the fact that the current system isn’t working. That there is not enough investments, long waiting lists and people having to travel miles for beds, which has also left us in the dangerous situation where people have to ‘prove’ how bad their mental health is to receive treatment. Hopefully the commitments to mental health services announced by Philip Hammond in the recent budget means comprehensive mental health support will be available in every large A&E department, which will help prevent what happened to Emily from happening in the future.
We also need greater accountability in how the mental health budget is spent, which would help to open up the dialogue between those who use mental health services and policy makers. It is service users who should be at the forefront of this conversation on mental health, and not constrained to only being able to have their say through using a hashtag about mental health awareness.
That’s why Wish created The Women’s Mental Health Network, which aims to improve this dialogue between policy-makers, service-providers, voluntary organisers and service-users. The Network itself is a user-led campaign platform that will work to improve the current mental health system by influencing statutory services to be more gender-specific. And we are currently in the consultation stage of the Network, asking women with experience of the mental health and/or criminal justice system to identify the top three issues within service provision that need to change, and we will then be developing user-led campaigns to improve these issues.
We need the voices of those in the mental health system to be heard by those in power, rather than containing them to only share their stories on social media.
We need to move mental health beyond hashtags if we want to make real change.
To fill out our questionnaire, go to womensmentalhealthnetwork.com/consultation and help us ensure that the voices of women will finally be heard in the mental health system.