Dr Helen Stokes, the new head of the Royal College of General Practitioners was widely – and perhaps rightly – criticised last week for suggesting that the fruit and vegetable ‘five-a-day’ target for a healthier diet was unaffordable (1). Clearly, she doesn’t shop at Lidl. However, her army of critics (online journalists and bloggers, mainly) seemed sufficiently incensed by this sound-bite − as news-juicy as an over-ripe peach − that in their eagerness to ridicule her they missed entirely what she also had to say about mental health; and that’s a shame.
Stokes argued that GPs are seeing more and more cases of mental ill-health in young people because of the negative influence of social media.
In her first interview in her new role and speaking to The Guardian newspaper, she said; “You get eight- or nine-year-olds coming in worried about how they’re looking, and nine-year-olds talking to their parents but not wanting to eat because the food’s fattening. That makes my skin crawl; that’s a real cause for anxiety for us all. Social media’s created a new set of norms and values and we’ve not given our children the resilience and wisdom to know how to use these things safely” (2).
As worrying as this is, sadly the problem of mental ill-health doesn’t just affect young people. According to the charity, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), “One in six adults currently suffers from a common mental health illness… The economic cost to the UK is £70 to £100 billion a year. More people are receiving treatment than previous years, but a third of people who self-identify as having a mental health problem have never received a diagnosis by a professional, leaving many people grappling with mental health issues on their own, dependent on the informal support of family, friends or colleagues” (3)
It would seem that mental ill-health affects men and women differently. The latest survey commissioned by the MHF shows that not only are men far less likely than women to seek professional support, they are also less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family.
Incredibly, data from the Office of National Statistics shows suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under-45 in the UK, with 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men.
What can we do? As ever, the answer to a complex set of problems with multiple, inter-related causes is never simple and what works for one person may not be that helpful for someone else. Professional help and advice, just as in the fitness industry, should come from a suitably qualified and experienced professional.
Nevertheless and having said that, a colleague of mine regularly helps out as a trained volunteer on a student nightline service. Quite rightly, he refuses to talk about his work apart from saying that matters would be improved tremendously if everyone did three things: 1) became more knowledgeable and aware regarding both good mental health and mental ill-health in all its forms; 2) became better, non-judgemental and empathetic listeners; and 3) were simply just nicer to one another.
My counselling colleague recommended two books that he thought I might like to read. The first of these was Next Steps in Counselling Practice, by Sanders, Frankland and Wilkins. This is a students’ companion for degrees, HE diplomas and vocational courses.
The second recommendation was Counselling for Toads by Robert de Board. It’s a re-imagining of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, hence the title. Apparently, Toad is depressed and his good friends Rat, Mole and Badger, along with a Heron (as the counsellor) set about helping him. I think I’ll read this one first.
Meanwhile, may I also strongly recommend the Mental Health Foundation’s website (www.mentalhealth.org.uk). Over and above all the background information, online booklets and incredibly helpful practical resources (as well as physical activity based ideas for fitness professionals to help increase awareness and raise funds), if someone you know needs urgent help, there’s essential advice and crucially, expert contact information.