Thursday, 15 November 2012

There is still much to be done for our nation's mental health

There is still much to be done for our nation's mental health

It's too late for my friend, but hope is there for others. None of us should wait until the funeral of a loved one before we take this seriously

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Stephen Fry attends a photocall to launch a new campaign 'Get It Off Your Chest' for mental health charity, Mind at Victoria Tower Gardens on May 11, 2009 in London, England.
Getty Images
If what we were told is true, my friend Simon Jones has finally found peace. His funeral was at a small crematorium outside Ipswich on Tuesday and, to the accompaniment of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", his coffin disappeared and we were left with our memories of a kind, deeply intelligent, generous man who could live no longer with a mental disease that had scarred his life. He will, in the words of Shakespeare recited during the service, "fear no more the heat o' the sun, nor the furious winter rages" – deeply and poignantly appropriate words for a young man who found that he had to live his live between blue skies and a terrible darkness.
There wasn't enough time for every aspect of Simon's life to be reflected at the funeral, but I knew him as a colleague, a studied and meticulous newspaperman in whose hands a sow's ear of a metaphor would emerge as a silken piece of prose. But I also knew him as someone with a horrendous mental condition, as did everyone at his funeral. There was no attempt to hide the truth about Simon and the bipolar affliction that drove him to take his life, with the effect that our personal recollections were mixed with wider, more profound thoughts about the nature of the disease from which he suffered. Could we have done more? Could the state have done more? How do we as a society deal with mental illness?

We didn't have to wait very long for the answer to some of these questions. Yesterday, a report into the treatment of schizophrenia concluded that standards of care for mental health patients in Britain fall "catastrophically short" of what is required. This Government should be praised for prioritising mental health issues, with the aim of establishing parity in the treatment of physical and mental illnesses, but this report – the result of a year's work by the Schizophrenia Commission – shows how much is still to be done. I am grateful to Alastair Campbell (who has written candidly about his battle with depression) for directing my attention to a blog by Paul Jenkins, an expert in the field and one of the report's authors. "Imagine being diagnosed with an illness for which there is no cure," he writes. He explains that the best drugs to combat the disease were developed in the 1960s and haven't been refined much since, and neither has society's approach to mental health problems improved.

Schizophrenia costs the country £11.8bn a year, but Mr Jenkins claims that if the focus was directed towards support of sufferers rather than managing risk (about 20 per cent of the entire mental health budget is spent on secure care), the cost – in every sense - would come down. But what he seeks, too, is a change in our attitude towards mental health.

He seeks more openness, more compassion, more determination to tackle these issues.

None of us should wait until the funeral of someone we know before we take this seriously.

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