How to Resolve the Mental Health Crisis – An Open Letter to Politicians

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Dear politicians

Future generations will look back on our efforts to resolve our current ‘mental health’ crisis with a mixture of horror and amusement. I can imagine – in the year 2119 and beyond – social history courses exploring the underlying reasons as to why the so-called civilised societies of the early 21st century treated its distressed citizens so barbarically, ultimately concluding that a reliance on psychiatric pseudoscience and a tolerance of gross human-rights violations were the key factors.

 

The present focus on ‘mental health’ is unprecedented. A continual stream of media reports highlight failings in the current system, while celebrities and members of the royal family add their voices to the clamour for an expansion of services for the ‘mentally ill’. Although well intentioned, this energy is typically misplaced; we do not require more of the same. The illness-like-any-other approach to human distress, as espoused by Western psychiatry, has been an abject failure. Despite dominating research and practice for over 60 years, this bio-medical paradigm has benefited few and damaged many.

 

Let’s be clear.

 

We do NOT need ‘early detection’ in schools that tag more and more children with dubious diagnostic labels.

We do NOT need to drug more and more of our citizens with ‘antidepressants’ and ‘antipsychotics’.

We do NOT need more anti-stigma campaigns that worsen discrimination by implying that the ‘mentally ill’ are a distinct group, inherently different from everyone else.

We do NOT need to waste further millions in bio-genetic research, chasing non-existent ‘mental illness’ genes and the corresponding wonder drug.

 

So, what do we need to do to resolve the mental health crisis?

 

An essential pre-requisite is to resoundingly reject the notion that ‘mental illness’ is primarily caused by biological defects. People experiencing high levels of distress and overwhelm – tagged by psychiatry as suffering from such things as ‘depression’, ‘bipolar disorder’, ‘schizophrenia’ – typically do NOT have brain disorders. If all MPs could grasp this central point (and I’d happily direct you to the relevant scientific research to support it) you would be able to start the process of transforming our approach to mental health and make a real difference. No longer stifled by the ‘illness like any other’ delusion, your responsibilities as policy-shapers and resource allocators could be directed towards radically improving the life experiences of our citizens – a sure-fire way to transform the mental health of the nation.

 

In particular, politicians could use their powers to:

 

  1. Stop human rights violations:

The current Mental Health Act represents a form of legalised discrimination, giving those tagged as suffering a ‘mental disorder’ the rights of suspected terrorists. Each day in our country scores of law-abiding citizens, many of who are perfectly capable of making their own decisions, are incarcerated and forced to ingest psychiatric drugs. These routine human-rights violations are largely a direct consequence of a Mental Health Act that wrongly equates  ‘mental disorders’ with brain abnormalities and lack of autonomy.

As politicians you have the power to rid our society of the Mental Health Act, this warped piece of legislation. We do not need distinctive ‘mental health’ law; other jurisdictions – Northern Ireland, for example – have already taken this important step. If you are serious about resolving the current crisis in the way we make sense of, and respond to, human distress, we must do likewise.

 

  1. Reduce adversity

Typically, a person’s distress and overwhelm is understandable in the context of that individual’s past and present life experiences. (Read the previous sentence again. Let it sink in). Given your role as policy makers, I recognise that this assertion might feel threatening to you, highlighting as it does your responsibility for reducing the level of adversity endured by our citizens. Conversely, acceptance of the fundamental life-experience/distress link offers you the opportunity to accomplish something meaningful in tackling the current mental health crisis.

So  stop pontificating about ‘improving treatment of the mentally ill’, and act with vigour and purpose to redirect resources into countering the following societal ills: poverty; inequality; discrimination; domestic violence; homelessness; childhood abuse; bullying; unemployment; alienation and violent crime. You know it makes sense.

 

  1. Simplify our approach to distressed people

Substantial improvement in the mental wellbeing of our people will not be realised through the discovery of a new psychiatric drug or individual therapy. The solution is much simpler than that: enable distressed people to promptly access support from compassionate, non-judgmental human beings, preferably those who have had first-hand experience of emotional pain and overwhelm. This initial response need not to be provided by mental health ‘experts’; indeed, it is better if it is offered by people unsullied by psychiatric training that, in the main, continues to peddle the ‘illness like any other’ delusion. For the most part, the essential criterion for the role is a genuine interest in listening to the multi-layered personal stories of those currently suffering.

 

Harnessing the healing power of human relationships can be achieved in various ways: drop-in centres, staffed by people who have survived emotional challenges of their own; a crisis house (independent from statutory provision) in every town; youth centres utilising the skills of older teenagers with lived experience of distress; social support networks within the workplace; and various peer support and mentoring schemes in schools and colleges. In more severe forms of emotional overwhelm, more intensive support might be required – such as Soteria Houses  or Open Dialogue  – effective interventions that crucially depend on a combination of human compassion and a curiosity about the sufferer’s individual life story.

 

So, politicians, you have an opportunity to transform our society’s approach to the enduring mental health crisis, to go down in history as one of the rare legislatures in the Western world who resoundingly rejected the psychiatric pseudo-science and associated human-rights violations. I urge you to grasp this opportunity so that future social commentators will show you respect rather than ridicule.

Yours faithfully

Dr Gary L. Sidley

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Gary is a freelance writer, blogger, conference speaker and trainer. In 2013, he opted for early retirement from his post of Professional Lead/Consultant Clinical Psychologist after 33 continuous years of employment in NHS mental health services. Throughout his career, Gary has presented numerous workshops on a range of topics including: the psychological factors underpinning suicidal behaviour, stigma, advance decisions, cognitive behaviour therapy and the limitations of risk assessment. He writes on a range of topics, including: alternatives to biological psychiatry (his book, Tales from the Madhouse: An insider critique of psychiatric services was published by PCCS Books in February 2015); general interest articles and humour. Gary is also a moderator of the ‘Drop the Disorder!’ Facebook group.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Really good points thank you for your work Gary – it seems quite clear that the system is ill and does little to help people its tasked to help, harms many and harms its staff while leaving the disordered culture ‘undiagnosed’ or ‘treated’.

    Secondary care and IAPT are burnout machines – in my experience many staff are struggling daily with the weight of meaningless targets, micromanagement and relentless stress. IAPT might be better named Integrating Austerity with Psychological Therapy – it is becoming increasingly medicalised in the language it uses and is more like a production line where all that matters is how people score on that useless tick box questionnaire the PHQ9 – useless to measure ‘recovery’ whatever that can mean in a vat of cultural level disorders but a bonanza to drug companies – a few boxes ticked and the prescription pad is out a label applied and another person is now mentally ill – and a great tool for bashing staff in a system of mass gaming and claptrap.

    it’s incredible and deeply distressing to listen to more and more people fully believe that they are ill and often believing this is ‘for no reason’ when five minutes of basic compassionate curiosity brings many reasons forward – but then it often gets minimised with ideas like other people seem to cope but I can’t so there is something wrong with me or something ‘underlying’- then you often hear the mental illness story – my last therapist, doctor, online questionnaire, google said I have ‘insert meaningless term here’

    It seems we humans are wired for belief and story and when a massive industry applies medical sounding names to our distress, offers drugs and talking as ‘treatments’ then of course it will pull people in on mass – I believed it for many years too and quite liked the certainty it seemed to give and of course it boosts a sense of esteem that we know what we’re talking about.

    The only thing I would question with the above letter is this idea of staffing a new system with people with lived experience not because I think its a bad idea because its not but can you tell where these people are that don’t have lived experience? We run ‘courses’ with silly names like ‘overcoming low self esteem’ when the staff have little self esteem beyond the professional facade – just listen to people complaining constantly and then sit in a team meeting where no one dare say a word to challenge anything – I know therapists that have been experiencing their own suicidal thoughts while trying to help others- I often find myself crushed with exhaustion with the tension making my physical health much worse – i’ve seen many staff that are functional substance abusers desperately trying to remain in the game to pay the mortgage and get stuck on the never ending treadmill of the harder you work the more you want the more you want the harder you work and so it goes. Regardless of training or ‘expertise’ no therapist is any better at living than anyone else and when the world brings suffering we too suffer.

    I would say a lot of physical health issues back and neck pain that has no ‘obvious cause’ is caused by jobs often repetitive, crushing, soul, body, mind and endless – the massive study done by Gallup a few years ago taking in millions of people world wide found about 14% of people benefit from their jobs the rest are ‘sleep working’ or actively hate what they do day in day out for the best years of our lives.

    As David Smail suggested lets get our focus of attention right and strive for OUTSIGHT get together and change this illness making machine of a culture and mental (ill) health system for the better

    Thanks again to mad in the UK and many others its been a light in a very dark tunnel.

  2. This has to be said but I doubt the political powers will think about this long enough to understand the implications of the letter.
    It’s so true and more probable, even for a blinded Dr that ‘mental illness’ does not exist.
    Let’s take stock and do some campaigning. I foresaw this wonderful website and it’s forward thinking contributers as being branded leftie-crackpots, and this has not been the case. In actual fact I see the stale & money-led established system as frightened or at least shaken.
    If only service users and family would be cognitive of the truth.

    • It is certainly a challenge to enable politicians to understand the pressing need for a paradigm shift in the way our society addresses human distress; very few – if any – ‘get it’. But I’m hopeful that if we keep plugging away some MPs who strive for social justice will come on board.

      Thank you for your interest and taking the time to comment.