Scotland’s mental health: shoulders to the wheel

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I’ll be honest. This time last week I’d never heard of Scott Hutchison or Frightened Rabbit. I’m not completely out of touch. But the indie music scene isn’t part of my world. So when news of Scott’s disappearance emerged I had to look him up to find out about the man behind the unfolding story.

It didn’t take me long to work out why, beyond the obvious human suffering involved, his going missing had so quickly seared through the public imagination. By the time the news emerged of his body being found on the banks of the Forth I got it, completely.

However, it wasn’t simply the media interest that drew me; or even the man himself and his music. The fact that his openness about depression had benefited others added an agonising twist. But I was nudged by something even more than that. And I wasn’t alone.

For a moment, we found ourselves convulsed in the midst of a tragedy which, whether we knew of him or not, touched us all. Yet this wasn’t mawkish curiosity either. Scott was well known, famous even, but he wasn’t a celebrity. He was one of us.

And perhaps because he was, his appalling, untimely death reminded us not just of our own personal vulnerability but of something shared — our troubled relationship with mental health and what we might do to fix it.

There in the cold light of Friday morning was the hideous incongruity of it all. Mental health, by any measure, is having its moment in the sun. But for Scott, in his hour of need, that hadn’t mattered a jot. Whatever the whys and wherefores, we all felt that somehow we had failed. The common sense of regret was palpable.

That we haven’t turned his suicide into a blame game is a relief. There is nothing to be gained from that. And it would be disrespectful beyond words. But it has, rightly, galvanised us. There is no doubting its significance to a bigger social moment. In the public commentary which has followed the private story, there is a common thread. Mental health is the great challenge of our time.

So we’re all agreed we must do better — and more. Part of that more is investment. And that’s a bullet we have to bite. If we are to avoid continually counting the cost we need to find the money or stop complaining. But that can’t just be a demand we make of government. It must also be a question we ask of ourselves.

The urgency in all this is flashing on the dashboard. Self-reported incidence of mental ill health among teenagers continues to rise. There is new evidence of significant levels of stress across the population at large. And, so on. The service response indicators are no less concerning. The system isn’t working. So the challenge we face is structural, but it’s cultural too.

This makes the case for a radical shift in health provision including earlier intervention, more talking therapy and social prescribing ever more compelling. But it also means that it isn’t just about health services. Every one of us should be asking, what are we doing? How can we make mental health part of our mission — for those we serve, employ, work with and for, whoever they are?

We often hear talk of a consensus on mental health. And yes, you won’t find many people in public life arguing that it isn’t a priority. Amen to that. But we are in danger of falling for our own rhetoric. Aspiration is not the same as implementation. Having a conscience is no bad thing but it won’t save lives — or even make better ones.

Sixteen years ago I too tried to take my own life. I’m glad I failed. But I know from experience that recovery was more of a trudge than a revelation. There were some things I had to fix immediately but it was a long term project. There were setbacks along the way and still are occasionally. Like many others, I’m a work in progress.

Fixing the country’s mental health will be no different. Some of the problems we face are already in accident and emergency. They need an urgent response. Others require long term intervention. It may take a decade, a generation or more. Even then we won’t arrive at a place where it’s all sorted. But we will, like me I hope, be wiser and more resilient.

We would also do well to better understand how change can be achieved — and learn from gains elsewhere. The science is complex — mental illness, like physical illness, is not one thing but a myriad of conditions. And though it’s clearly a public health problem, the remedy is as much about social change as it is about disease control.

Mental health’s current popularity as a cause carries risks as well as opportunities. As one commentator put it to me recently, we need to avoid the climate change trap. If mental health becomes a hold-all for every progressive ambition, we will fail. But it is something every progressive individual and institution should be concerned about.

And to succeed we need collective leadership and collaboration — beyond the usual suspects and across traditional boundaries. Everyone, government included, has a stake in this endeavour. This is wicked problem. So it’s up to all of us to put our shoulders to the wheel — together . In the words of the RSA, we must ‘think like a system and act like an entrepreneur.’

If this is the great challenge of our time, it will take more than a single strategy or campaign to crack it. And we all have our piece to play.

Whatever you’re going through, you can call the Samaritans free any time, from any phone on 116 123.

Chair @SAMHtweets, Non Exec @socsecscot & runner @EdinburghAC, Views my own

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