Despite what much of my family believe, I really have no particular political allegiance. I have a moderate interest in politics, particularly issues that affect Christians, and exercise my right to vote whenever there is a general election. For some reason though, my passionately left wing side of family think I’m a hard and fast tory, and my daily mail reading side of the family dismiss me as a liberal leftie. Notwithstanding my vow not to vote Lib Dem, I really do try to evaluate manifestos on case by case basis and avoid party politics wherever possible.
However, despite my disdain for the most liberal of the mainstream parties, this week I would like to heartily congratulate Nick Clegg. In fact, what I’d really like to do is give him a good old slap on the back followed by a mammoth bear hug. He would probably feel rather uncomfortable in my embrace, (and to be honest, I would too), but my joy at hearing his promise to end the second class treatment of mental illnesses by the NHS was overwhelming. His courage to put treatment of mental illness at the centre of a mainstream party policy programme, let alone at the heart of an annual speech to a party conference should not be understated.
I’m not going to repeat all of his specific pledges, but they included investing a further £120 million in mental health services over the next five years, guaranteed waiting times for talking therapies and further focus on intervention for psychosis and crisis care.
And boy, are they needed.
In general, I’m not one to criticise the NHS. I’ve been very thankful for the care that my family and I have received over the years. I wholly believe in its underlying ideology and feel that as Britons, we should be proud that we have such a magnificent free system that continues to function despite the UK’s growing numbers, an ageing population, people who abuse the system and management who do not always manage well. And in comparison to many developing countries, where according to the WHO, 80% of people with mental illness receive no treatment whatsoever, I feel very fortunate. At least I live in a country where reasonable care is available. And it’s miles ahead of some of the ‘treatments’ available in countries such as Zambia or Ghana. In the depths of my depression and anxiety, I could go to my GP for help without the fear that I would be caged, starved or stripped in the name of medicine.
However, I don’t live in a developing country. I live in one of the richest nations on earth.
Although I’ve only glanced through it, I have to say England’s chief medical officer’s (Dame Sally Davies) report on UK mental health care makes for condemning reading. Amongst many shocking statistics was the detail that approximately 28% of people who die by suicide have been in contact with mental health services in the previous year, and for half of these the last contact was within a week of death.
I have to say, at times over the past seven to eight months I’ve been really disappointed with the care I’ve received. At my worst, I was so gripped by my self-derision that I felt guilt for trying to access medical help. I now have a bit more what mental health professionals call ‘insight’, and am able to see how ill I had to become before I was offered some effective treatment.
When I first went to my GP and described my feelings of anxiety and depression, I was put on a waiting list for CBT. And to be fair, it wasn’t too long before I had some kind of assessment (about 5-6 weeks). However, I then had a further three-four month wait before I could see a therapist, despite assurances that it would be quicker. I am acutely aware that this time lag is really very short compared to what it would have been even a few years ago. However, the problem is what happened in this interval.
I went back to my GP in consternation during this time to explain that my ability to deal with life had deteriorated. When I expressed suicidal thoughts, the doctor rolled her eyes and quickly wrote out a prescription. When I re-visited her few weeks later to say I was really on the edge, she took me off the meds and shoed me out of the room. It was clear that she wanted me out of her office as soon as possible. I felt humiliated. And the suicidal thoughts didn’t go away.
My existence became so dark that sometimes the only way I would get through the day was by self-harming and fantasising about killing myself. Even after an overdose, and treatment at A and E, the mental health crisis team wouldn’t see me. For some inexplicable reason, I wasn’t deemed ‘risky’ enough. They just couldn’t spare the resources for a ‘first timer’. The day after my attempt, I received a phone call from a support worker and was given a number to ring, in case I ever wanted to do something ‘silly’ again.
Despite finding a new GP (who in fairness has been a lot more generous with his time during consultations), telling him about the absolute hopelessness and fear that filled my waking moments and sharing my continued thoughts about harming and killing myself, I was met with the comment “well, if you were really intent on trying to end your life again, you wouldn’t be in my office now, would you.” It was the second time in a month I’d left a GP consultation feeling humiliated.
It felt like as long as I wasn’t actually about to commit homicide, or hang myself there and then, then my suffering was a problem. As long as I was alive, and not a threat to anyone else’s safety, then I wasn’t a priority. It took a brush with psychotic depression and an attempt to run away and catch a plane (oh how I cringe now) before a Psychiatrist agreed to see me. And that was with my loyal husband and friends battling away for me, making fervent phone calls to crisis teams and dragging me to doctor’s surgeries.
Even now, after making some remarkable progress, I feel as though my GP has washed his hands of me. Not because he can’t be bothered (despite his insensitive comments, I’ve grown to see that he is doing his best), but because there just simply are not the resources to help someone like me. I’m no longer suicidal, am now potentially thinking about re-entering work and much less ‘on the edge’, so therefore I ‘don’t need any more time with a specialist’. He smiled at me and said ‘at least you’re stable now’.
Despite his kind intentions, it felt like a punch to the stomach.
No, I’m not suicidal, but I feel as though a part of me is still dead. I’m not the person I was, and still suffer with anxiety and depression. I’m scared that this semi-existence is ‘as good as it gets’, and to be honest, if I spend too long thinking about it, that itself is enough to send me spiralling back into my darkest thought patterns.
Although I’m pleased to hear Clegg’s promises this week, the cynic in me reads articles like Nick Triggle’s (found here, if you’re interested http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-29533857) and can’t help but feel somewhat sceptical. Is this money really going to be enough to help mental health services on the ground? Are these targets too low and generated merely to create ‘spin’ for the Lib Dems? Will people like me start to see tangible changes in their care?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s a step in the right direction. It’s making a statement that no longer will mental health services play second fiddle. For the first time, Westminster seems to taking mental health seriously. I’m trying to take heart that politicians are starting to see that it is politically, as well as culturally ‘time to change’ and, as a result, putting this into policy.
And I for one will be cheering Clegg all the way.