Mental Health Awareness Week kicked off yesterday, with the prevailing sentiment being that 'It's okay to not be okay'. While this is an important message, Sarah Collins of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) explains that the imbalanced structure of our capitalist society fundamentally affects our mental health in a negative way. She reflects on this and invites you to an important event that addresses these challenges...
#itsoknottobeok has become a prominently used hashtag over the past year as high-profile mental ill health issues have come to the fore. Young male suicide, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, stress and anxiety, isolation and loneliness amongst the young and elderly: these are all themes we're increasingly aware of and unsure of how to address.
Correctly, people are pointing out that these issues can and will affect all of us at some point in our lives and therefore #itsoknottobeok. But whilst we encourage each other to ‘talk about our feelings’ (being careful not to overload the listener who might be struggling themselves) or call a charity helpline (if that charity has survived austerity cutbacks) or speak to your GP (and wait months for an NHS appointment to speak to a counsellor, because… austerity cutbacks), is there not something more fundamental about the way our society is structured which is causing or exacerbating the rise in mental ill health?
One in nine young people attempting suicide, over two-thirds of people in Glasgow stating that they have experienced loneliness and two-thirds of young women reporting that they have been sexually harassed at work: think of what this does to the psyche of a society trying to progress.
There's a social context to the rise in mental ill health and it’s one which means that people can't simply ‘get over it’ or ‘deal with it’ without a sharp turn towards breaking down structural barriers. The Lonely Society, a 2010 report commissioned by The Mental Health Foundation, noted a link between our "individualistic society" and an increase in mental health issues over the past 50 years. It also drew on research showing that mental health problems occur more frequently in unequal societies where vulnerable people are often undervalued and socially neglected.
A short-term policy response will not cure this endemic, but a multi-faceted and well-resourced strategy, which places the idea of a well-resourced and funded community at the core, can mitigate against social isolation and loneliness, reversing the tide in favour of social cohesion. And an intersectional response is needed.
One which recognises that older LGBT+ people report even higher levels of loneliness and isolation; that the BME community confront disproportionately higher levels of mental ill health in part due to the continued institutional and systemic harassment and subsequent feelings of isolation; that young men feel disempowered and lonely partly due to the economic and industrial changes in the way society has shifted thereby often perpetuating the toxic masculinity which harms so many; and that women being sexually harassed or discriminated against can cause or exacerbate mental ill health and women’s image of themselves.
With employment becoming increasingly precarious for so many workers in Scotland, rife low pay and under-employment, and stress and anxiety becoming normal features of our lives, mental ill health is a trade union issue.
The Equality Committees of the STUC have each identified mental health as a key priority for 2018/19. We know that public services that once helped people mitigate mental ill health are stretched to breaking point due to years of cuts. And we also know there are deep structural and cultural problems that lead to workers from under-represented communities being disproportionately impacted by poor mental well-being, and having greater barriers put in the way of treatment and support.
As such, “We're All in This Together: Exploring Our Personal & Collective Power around Mental Health” will be held on 19th May at the STUC building in Glasgow to explore how we use our personal and collective power to deal with the challenges of modern day life and the impact it has on our individual mental health, as well as the shared mental health of society.
Discussing these issues in the context of austerity and public service cuts and job losses, an increase in social media, photoshop, automation, and increasing precarity and alienation at work, we want to investigate a joint approach to mental ill health in 2018 Scotland. Our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, therefore the only way to combat isolation and loneliness is to eradicate the causes of the high increases in anxiety, depression, physical isolation, and breakdown in social cohesion.
Robert Tressell put it succinctly in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when the protagonist spoke of another man who had been called selfish for dying of suicide and leaving a young family behind: “No one had any right to condemn him for this, because all who live under the present system practise selfishness, more or less. We must be selfish: the System demands it. We must be selfish or we shall be hungry and ragged and finally die in the gutter...It is the system that deserves to be blamed. What those who wish to perpetuate the system deserve is another question.”
So, let’s put resources and money in to organisations which put co-operation and emulation above competition to allow them to flourish. Trade unions, which remain the largest organisation of people in the UK, are well placed to encourage this and to provide a sense of belonging and identity where people can form bonds through collective activity. These activities bring about a genuine human community in which each member is ‘a really individual communal being’ instead of the property of others, be that an employer or husband or social media platform.
It's okay for you not to be okay, sometimes. But it’s not okay that none of us are okay, all the time.