At the mercy of prevailing winds: people with mental health difficulties and austerity policies

Mental health isn’t just something that is about treatment.  For those of us that experience difficulties with our mental health, they’re something that tend to seep into all areas of our lives.  In common with other disabilities, mental health difficulties tend to make many areas of life more difficult.  They ways in which those areas are difficult depend on the world that we live in and the people around us.

Strong social protections; benefits that offset the greatest hardships that come from having difficulties with your mental health; strong rights to treatment, support and to quality of life: all of these things safeguard the wellbeing of people with mental health difficulties.  While mental health difficulty might happen in our heads; the solutions and causes are not purely in the individual.

We know that having a mental health difficult means that you are more likely to end up poor.  What it means to be poor changes depending on the prevailing political and social winds.  Mental health difficulties can often make you feel vulnerable because when you are having difficulties you are more at the mercy of those prevailing winds.  Having a mental health difficulty makes things more difficult.

The fact that with the right support, help and changes in circumstance some of us will be able to gain and stay in paid employment is used to suggest that others of us are malingers or just aren’t trying hard enough.

Loss of trust

Many people with mental health difficulties have lost the sense that it is possible to trust this, or any, government to put their rights on the agenda.  People have seen the accessibility of treatment they need reduced; seen the benefits they have been receiving both in-work and out of work dwindle; seen the fabric of local voluntary and statutory services and organisations fray and in some places collapse.  Mental health began austerity in a condition of under-investment.

When someone first falls ill our automatic response is to think ‘there should be someone to help with this’ but increasingly, as cuts hollow out social protections – regardless of whether they are provided by the private, public or voluntary sector – people are finding that the help that every thought should be there just isn’t.

What I’ve seen, and experienced myself, is that everyday life with a mental health difficulty is often a struggle. One that isn’t obvious; isn’t headline grabbing; but one that makes a mess of lives if there isn’t support, help and protections.  And those messes, and people’s lives, get worse.

When we’ve lived with mental health difficulties for a while; our hope is that the crises will be further apart; that help and support will make sure that we don’t lose sight of what we want our lives to be about.  When we’ve got the right treatment; the right support, enough money to live on and a balance between stretching ourselves and feeling safe – even then we’re often just managing to keep our heads above water.  The margin between doing OK and not doing OK can be very slim.  Even a tiny policy change can tip life from being manageable into life being impossible.

Even when everything is in place we can still become ill.  Mental health difficulties tend to be treacherous like that.  When that happens we need to feel that it’s possible to access help quickly before everything that we’ve managed to build up is washed away.

Your policy is my life

People with long term mental health difficulties are some of the most vulnerable in society. And we hate it.  We hate feeling that so much of our life depends on policy made in Whitehall or discussed in No. 10.  We can’t pull off a magic trick and become not-unwell.

Even when we’re doing well it’s often because we’re getting the right help.  That isn’t an argument for the removal of that help; it’s an argument for its continuation.  The Liberal Democrats in coalition  tried to lay a legacy of mental health change during the last Parliament.  Some treated that with cynicism, but I’ve not reason to think it wasn’t heartfelt.  Whether that sticks or not is based on whether our new government cares enough about mental health to do the one thing that government can do apart from trying to pass laws.  It depends on whether they are prepared to spend money.  It’s easy to look like savings are being made if you find ways of shifting costs off the balance sheet.  It’s always possible to shift the costs of not investing in mental health off the balance sheet; to say that it’s individuals fault for not getting better, not making the best of what is on offer.

But remember: mental health treatment and support needs to a be a partnership.  You can’t ‘do’ mental health to people.  It’s not a ‘pull your socks up’ situation.  This government needs to rebuild that lost trust if it is to get anywhere with people with mental health difficulties.  As much as we may want to be self-reliant, we also have to rely on the society in which we live.

Many people feel this acutely. People are scared and worried that what little security they’ve managed to achieve in the face of mental health conditions that make a mess of the things you might want to do can be swept away by a single policy announcement, an edit to a cell in a spreadsheet, a policy focus on one aim rather than another.

If the scale of cuts suggested is to put into action; the human cost of those cuts aren’t collateral damage.  The human costs of those cuts are the core business of any government: the duty to protect its citizens or subjects.  And for many who feel close to those cuts, the prevailing wind is bringing not a warm breeze of spring but a harsh chill of a never-ending winter.

Mark Brown is development director of Social Spider CIC. He is @markoneinfour on twitter

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