Introducing Mental Health Week

Each day this week, the New Statesman website will be hosting a blog exploring mental health issues.

In the course of a single year, one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem. And yet it’s a subject we’re only just beginning to talk about with any kind of openness. For instance, it wasn’t until last year, with the help of the Backbench Business Committee, that a whole debate in Parliament was dedicated to mental health issues, and it took until earlier this year to get a law passed that prevents people being disqualified as MPs if they suffer from a mental illness.

The reason for this silence is well-known, and can be expressed in a single word: stigma. The social stigma attached to being public about mental illness is so great that nine out of ten people with mental health problems say it has had a negative effect on their lives. The fear of discrimination in the workplace, from strangers, and even from colleagues, friends or partners prevents people from feeling comfortable speaking about their problems. This in turn can even make things worse – having to keep an illness secret and feeling like you are isolated without support is a terrible state to live in.

It’s for this reason that the New Statesman is hosting a week of blogs exploring and debating mental health issues. It feels as though we’re beginning to approach a point where lazy stereotypes are starting to give way to more informed discussion and substantive progress, and we want to do everything we can to push this forward faster. The umbrella topic of “mental health” informs everything from decisions in our individual lives to government policy, and we’ve tried to reflect that in the pieces we’ve commissioned for this week. There’s everything from novelist Rebecca Wait’s personal memoir of depression and language to Holly Armstrong’s discussion of gender balance and suicide rates to Willard Foxton’s experiences of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a lot more besides.

The aim of the week is to tell stories that might have remained untold in the past because of fear and discrimination, as well as discussing the policy steps we should be taking to improve things for people suffering from mental illness. We’re trying to start a conversation – practically, we can’t represent every single aspect of the subject, but we hope you’ll find something worth reading and discussing in the comments and on social media.

Each day, we’ll be posting the links to the new blogs on this page, so check back to read the latest posts.

Monday The darkness beyond language by Rebecca Wait and You can't make schizophrenia nice by Glosswitch

Tuesday Mental health and the myth of the "crazy lesbian" by Eleanor Margolis; Is writing online bad for your sanity? by Martin Robbins

Wednesday Domestic violence and mental illness by Faridah Newman and Not sleeping is awful beyond belief by Nicky Woolf

Thursday Living with PTSD by Willard Foxton and The uncomfortable truth about gender inequality on suicide by Holly Baxter

Friday Depression and austerity by Frances Ryan

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt