World Mental Health Day

“Health, wealth and happiness!” is the toast we’ve all heard.  Mental health defines two of these, and impacts on the third.  In May, Tyne and Wear Citizens held a Mayoral hustings at the Tyne Theatre, 1000 people attended.  The host asked everyone to stand up; a thousand people got to their feet.  She then said, “Sit down if you don’t know anyone who has suffered with a mental health issue.”   There were still close to a thousand people on their feet. 

Today is World Mental Health Day.  The focus this year is suicide prevention.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 – 29 year-olds worldwide.  Men are three times more likely to take their own lives than women.  Statistics can’t do justice to the human stories that comprise these numbers.  Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, friends, colleagues and loved ones. 

On Monday I visited the Recovery College Collective, on Market Street in Newcastle.  ReCoCo, as it’s known, is a peer-led mental health charity.  Kate (I’ve changed her name) told me about her mental health journey; her self-harming, her suicide attempts.   “I’m only alive because of ReCoCo.”  She couldn’t bring herself to fill in forms, she felt judged everywhere she went.  She spoke – eloquently – about attending a peer-led group, facilitated by those who had suffered from poor mental health and had recovered.  She speaks of “a light-bulb moment” when she recognised her situation was similar, and perhaps she too could recover.  She last self-harmed three years ago, she sees the future as she never has before, and is now facilitating peer-led recovery herself.  All by meeting other people, in a structured, safe environment, supported by professionals. 

ReCoCo is a nomad charity.  Like many others, they find temporary homes in unused office blocks, waiting for redevelopment.  The City Council waives their business rates, if the landlord lowers the rents.  But this is no way to run our public services.  Groups like Psychologists Against Austerity have proven the damage caused by cuts.  Waiting lists are long, services are patchy, and people with years-long, complex problems compounded by alcohol dependency and drug use might be prescribed a mere six sessions of therapy. 

Nine out of ten NHS mental health trusts reported a marked increase in mental health problems when Universal Credit was imposed on the most vulnerable in our society.  I asked the people using ReCoCo whether their mental health problems were in part caused by the stresses of poverty.  The answer was an overwhelming, and at times cathartic, yes.  Insecure work, problems with insecure housing and sofa-surfing.  The cost of bus tickets, and people having to choose between heating and eating.  A 2017 report from the TUC found the unemployment rate of people with mental health conditions was a shocking 75%! 

My team is in the final wave of consultations with businesses on our Good Work Pledge.  23% of people in the North of Tyne earn less that the Real Living Wage of £9 an hour, which is the minimum people need to live on to avoid building up debts.  Employers will be encouraged to sign up to providing the Real Living Wage, and other pledges that make work rewarding and motivational, such as in-work training, gender equality, and access to trade union support.  It’s a fact that unionised workplaces are more productive, have better staff relations, lower sickness rates and lower staff turnover. 

The good news is I’ve had nothing but support from the major employers and business organisations like the CBI, Chamber of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses.  They know the best way to prosperity is to look after your staff. 

Babies aren’t born feeling suicidal.  Somewhere along the way, psychological pressures occur which make kids, adolescents and adults mentally unwell. 

At that hustings in May, Tyne & Wear Citizens asked me to commit to providing mental health support in every school by the end of my five year term.  At any given moment, 1 in 8 schoolkids has a mental health disorder.  How Britain has found itself with a mental health crisis amongst children beggars belief.  North of Tyne’s devolution means we’re uniquely able to develop an Education Challenge, including mental health professionals in every school.  We’ll be pitching government to fund mental health support for kids – and staff – and crucially, we’re working to remove the stresses that cause ill health. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I’m delighted Labour has announced it will reform Ofsted once in government.  The “exam factory” culture is neither the best way to improve educational outcomes nor to improve school standards.  If we’re to start treating people as human beings rather than economic units, it has to start in childhood. 

This article first appeared in The Journal and Newcastle Evening Chronicle on 10th October 2019