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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.