One in four adults has experienced a mental disorder in the past year (WHO). This doesn’t include children; there are alarming increases in the rates os depression, self-harming, and emotional and behavioural difficulties among young people (youngminds.org).
As many as three-quarters of people won’t get the help they need in dealing with their condition, and many go undiagnosed. Both MIND and the WHO say that the mental health statistics are likely to underestimate the scale of the problem,
There’s some Good News though
The lesser psychiatric disorders are not new, even though the figures are on the increase. For as long as there has been written history people have been recording their experiences of ‘afflictions of the spirit’. This comes through in private diaries and the writings of the great and good.
Modern medicine (based on treatments emphasising drugs and surgery) has only existed for 150 years. During that time psychological distress has been ‘medicalised’. Prior to that, people just got on with it; most illnesses of the mind and spirit were seen as the province of philosophy, or the church. No doubt some got better, and some didn’t, but still, in most cases we can assume they continued to function and the human race hasn’t died out.
I know that in extreme cases of ‘madness’ people were locked up. This is still true today, though we dress it in more caring language. In some cases, hospitalisation is needed, but remember that many severe conditions start out as something less serious. Mental distress which is understood and responded to supportively in the early stages is more likely to to be seen as manageable, and less likely to become a severe disorder .
Back to the Present
The persistent increases in rates of mental illness in developed and developing countries seems to be linked to the lifestyles and social conditions that are part and parcel of progress. In parallel with that, it seems to me, we have come to believe two things which are seriously hampering the situation around mental health.
1) Mental distress is a medical matter which can only be diagnosed and treated by appropriately trained and qualified professionals
2) The rest of us are unqualified to help anyone suffering from a troubled mind or spirit – so-called psychological problems – whether it is ourselves or those around us.
It’s Your Mind, Take Care of It
There’s a lot we can do for ourselves, but societies seem to believe that we shouldn’t ‘meddle’ with people’s minds. There’s no doubt that modern scientific medicine is a great wonder, and an immeasurable improvement on what went before. Equally, medicine has given us a better understanding of mental disorders, through its research and treatment protocols. But medicine can only ever be part of the solution, and as history has shown, people managed to survive despite the absence of medicine as we know it today, for the greater part of human history.
Understanding that there’s a lot we can do for ourselves and those around us if only we can shake off the (largely unconscious) compliance with the idea that the mind is something mysterious that we should be afraid of.
Each of us has a mind, and it is for each of us to take care of it and to understand that there’s a lot you can do for yourself when emotional and/or psychological upset begins to appear. There’s also a lot we can do for each other, through understanding, acceptance, and clear-eyed belief about what mental ‘illnesses’ are, and the knowledge that we are qualified to help another human being, whatever the label that is attached to their distress. Professional help is available, but it’s not the only answer and there’s not enough of it to go round anyway.
What’s more, as research is now showing, in many cases the best treatment for mental illness is exercise, contact with nature, agreeable social contact, sleep, diet and… all the stuff that people have known for centuries. Even extreme mental suffering can be lessened by following the traditional ideas, and in some cases – for the lesser ones – they are the only remedy needed.
I call it DIY Therapy, you could also say it is self-help. Whatever we call it, the real problem is that we have handed over responsibility for the mind and spirit to a system that is under-resourced and over-stretched. Through our fear of common phenomena like anxiety, depression, and all the other nasty-but-common things that a quarter of us struggle with, we’ve also lost touch with the resources that we have to help ourselves and others.
World Health Organisation (WHO), Data and Statistics; Prevalence of Mental Disorders