Last week was world mental health awareness day. As I browsed through my social media that morning I was heartened to see so many posts encouraging people to seek help, telling their own personal stories of their struggle with the black dog and about how they climbed their way out of the darkest of times in that it might inspire others to open up. It had been a welcome change after a period of seeing and reading endless accounts of human misery and cruelty, both in the news and at work, had left me briefly frozen in depression with images of suffering on a constant loop in my head.
Something else caught my eye too. An article about the government appointing a new suicide minister, Jackie Doyle Price, whose job it now is apparently to reduce the number of people taking their own lives. I don’t know what sort of salary the role brings with it, but you can be sure it certainly won’t be minimum wage. She certainly has all the compassionate qualities you would want someone in such a job to have- This is the same person who wanted to kick the elderly out of their homes to pay for their care instead of passing said property on to their children- for why should the government have to pay for old people who have only worked themselves to the bone all their lives and actually paid their taxes instead of hiding them in offshore accounts like little capitalist squirrels that then demand everyone else’s pile of nuts .A woman who actively votes for cuts to benefits which is increasingly cited as a reason people are killing themselves. In short, it’s sort of like employing Nosferatu as a phlebotomist and expecting him not to drain the very life out of his patients. Forgive me for my cynicism on the appointment, but we have seen this same thing time and time again with very little effect and I can’t as yet see how this will be any different- other than the fact that Doyle Price will use the role to continue to justify her employing her husband as a secretary on a £30,000 a year salary.
For we have to ask why we need someone in office to find out why the nations mental health is so poor. It’s not as if frontline workers in mental health services haven’t been telling them for years what the issues are, free of charge. In all the years of austerity, it has never been ‘all in this together’. Maybe it would have been if those in government had been queuing at the food banks, had been forced to spend less and less time with their children as they take on more ridiculous hours in order to put food on the table. If they’d been forced to decide between dinner or hot water. If they’d been subjected to countless sanctions and humiliating fit to work assessments in order to access the decreasing amount of support that is offered to them. If it was them who were sniggered about in parliament as MP’s voted to deny firefighters and nurses a small pay rise. If they’d had to disclose rape on a form to be read by an untrained worker in order to get child benefit for a third child. But they never paid the price. We did. And we have paid with more than just money.
It is the same old routine from a couple of years ago when Theresa May had the inspired idea of appointing a domestic violence commissioner to find out why that was still so prevalent. There was never any need to give a nice fat salary to one of her mates because domestic abuse charities had been telling her for years what the problems were- which funnily enough are often the same that aggravate mental health issues, but it always fell on deliberately ignorant ears. Maybe they don’t listen because they never like the answers we give- that some of this is on their heads. Like those working in the mental health field, domestic abuse workers have been telling officials over and over again the particular consequences that austerity has for victims of domestic abuse. If there are cuts to services, then independent domestic violence advisors and support workers end up with too high case loads and cannot give each service user the attention they deserve. They foresaw that the restrictions to legal aid and the introduction of Universal Credit would trap victims of domestic abuse into dangerous relationships (as perpetrators will always ensure that any money from joint claims will go into their account) and that removal of PIP and mobility cars leaves disabled victims at the mercy of their abusers.
Those not claiming benefits are not safe from the assault either. Go to your local food bank and they will tell you that many of their recipients are in work and it would be a fool who would think that this can save you from the ever widening poverty trap. Really, it’s no wonder employers are choosing mindfulness training as their new big thing to help workers combat stress. Don’t think about whether we are actually going to give you any hours next week, or whether we are going to renew your increasingly shorter contracts, or the fact we haven’t issued more than a 2% pay rise in the last five years despite the cost of living going up massively. Take some deep breaths. Focus on right this second, of coolness of the water you are drinking, or the mint flavoured sweet melting in you mouth. Don’t think about all those worries you have, and you won’t have to go on the sick with crippling depression. Because, you know if you are ill too long, that’ll be a disciplinary. I’m not knocking mindfulness practice and techniques. I use them myself and find them effective at the times when I find myself mulling over the same things that no longer matter, or haven’t even happened, over and over again. But they are never going to help someone whose basic needs are not being met when their reality, that in the here and now, is miserable because of the catastrophic social problems that they are facing.
A study by Crisis and Heriot-Watt university 2017 estimated that the number of homeless people will rise by 26.5% in the next decade, whilst households in unsuitable accommodation will rise by 93%, which we know comes with a whole set of physical and mental health problems. The institute of health visiting reported in 2015 that homeless children were observed with developmental and speech delay, were twice as likely to be admitted to hospital, and are susceptible to infectious diseases such as scabies and lice infestation.
Even children with a roof over their heads are not exempt, as we see a rise in children experiencing mental health problems as schools focus on getting results and have a seemingly endless supply of tests and homework, not to mention the social pressures from their peers. In a 2017 poll of teachers from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, a fifth reported that they had encountered children between 4 and 7 years old who were presenting with mental health problems, rising to over a third who had seen children aged 7 to 11 who were experiencing these difficulties.
But we are not mad, as a nation. Many of our fears are not actually irrational. What we are is a nation fast becoming poisoned by our own cortisol. When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, which is a hormone our bodies make when we are exposed to stress . This is useful when we are in immediate physical danger as part of our fight/flight response. But it is not good for us when we are constantly producing it as a reaction to never ending amounts of stress. We are constantly alerted to incoming news of potential threats all through the day and night thanks to television and social media notifications. Terrorist attacks, gangs, knife crime, sex offenders. Bird flu, swine flu, ebola, anything that comes out of Morrissey’s mouth. We watched Grenfell burn to the ground with people trapped inside. We hear there are going to be more job cuts, more welfare cuts, that the company we work for has gone into administration. We are told, “think things are bad now, wait till the next lot of austerity thrown at you… just wait till…. BREXIT! You’ll be kept in a holding pen by the DWP and your children will turn into latter day Artful Dodgers, as they fend for themselves in Victorian style street gangs while you are forced to celebrate another royal wedding and be happy about footing the bill. The media also love to whip us up into a frenzy to introduce us to our brand new enemy, coming for us and our children, no matter how ludicrous. Every year one of my local newspapers likes to roll out an annual scare campaign about common house spiders, who they talk about as if they were the direct descendants of Shelob from Lord of the rings. The Daily Express has made an annual tradition out of telling Britain that it will be turned into the ice planet Hoth in the WORST WINTER ON RECORD that will kill everyone over the age of 47, as beloved by the nation as Christmas dinner and avoiding eye contact on public transport.
With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that we have responded with a now almost trademark cynicism on learning of Doyle-Price’s new job title. We don’t need a well paid minister to tell us why many are feeling so hopeless, because we are the ones living it. What we need is resources and community and less of the divide and rule that they try to enforce. Tired people don’t fight. But remember that the food and clothes banks and housing action groups were not set up by governments and politicians. It wasn’t them who took supplies to the survivors of Grenfell Tower. They were set up by us. People organising on grassroots levels to respond to unmet needs is what we have always been good at. If you ever feel hopeless at the struggles we see around us, remember that we are and always have been the only thing that has ever counteracted that. Kindness is contagious, literally, and by practising it we produce more oxytocin- the hormone which is the very opposite of cortisol that lowers our stress fuelled blood pressure and improves the health of our hearts. It’s almost like we are biologically programmed to co-operate in order to survive and thrive, like what Darwin did actually try to point out all those years ago but some of us just misinterpreted it and screamed “survival of the fittest” as an excuse to justify taking more than they needed. So when you feel overwhelmed by the things you see around you, be proud you retained your compassion throughout everything you have seen. Remember that while no one individual can save the worlds problems, you are not powerless. You never were.
Here’s ‘That Girl, Suicide’ by Brian Jonestown Massacre, which I’m going to use as a brag that I’m going to see these play tonight.