David Cameron talks to Professor of Neurology Nick Fox during a visit to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

To tackle our mental health crisis we need to reduce inequality

The government still prefers to spend money on expensive and complicated solutions, rather than cost-effectively addressing causes.

It was recently reported that poor mental health costs the UK economy £70bn a year, a sum equivalent to 4.5 per cent of our GDP. This is nothing short of a national disaster, primarily in terms of ruined lives but also in terms of lost productivity and economic inefficiency. 

It is also, most infuriatingly, an avoidable disaster. We know that mental health correlates strongly with income inequality, and that a reduction in inequality could significantly reduce mental health problems across the UK. But as with many of the economic and social problems associated with our high level of inequality, we seem to prefer to spend money on expensive and complicated solutions, rather than cost-effectively addressing causes. The cost of inequality can be seen measured in the billions we spend on our welfare state: on the nurses, doctors, police, probation officers, prison staff, psychologists and psychiatrists and all the physical buildings and equipment that we provide for these professionals to do their work. Poor mental health drives up the demand for all of these services and the people and assets that deliver them.

This sticking-plaster-on-a-dam approach is also creeping into more and more areas of our economy, not just the public sector. At the lower end of the income spectrum, people are being crow-barred back into work that many are not fit to take on and, once in their new jobs, they are then struggling to stay in them. Further up the income ladder, more and more employees are being urged to be more resilient and a whole industry has now been spawned to help people cope with workplace stress and perform better. Some employers, in a quest to give their staff mental toughness and "edge" even seek to introduce the benefits of sports or military training into their workplaces, despite their businesses bearing no relation whatsoever to a sports arena or a battlefield.

The probable context for all this is the so-called "global race" in which many of our politicians seem to believe we are engaged. Even if we are tempted to accept this rather depressing rats-in-a-sack worldview, our chances of success will surely be far greater if we reduce inequality and thereby tackle the major cause of the various health and social ills that hold back our individual and collective economic performance. In our increasingly insecure, under-employed, low-paid and long-hours economy it would seem fanciful that success will be achieved by simply telling everyone to pull themselves together, "lean in" and work harder.  

Carrying on as we are clearly entails massive and sustained threats to our health and well-being. We have a choice: we will either succeed together as part of a fair, robust and supportive economy - or we will each strive individually to gain a short-lived and illusory edge in the unfair, jagged and rickety Heath Robinson-esque economic model we have now. Economics and compassion both strongly suggest that rather than forever patching people up when they fall, we should be doing more to prevent them falling in the first place.

Bill Kerry is a co-founder of The Equality Trust

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war