How can we change our approach to mental

An opinion piece by a person we've worked alongside in Gloucester

I’ll freely admit: I didn’t care much about vulnerable people. I was middle-class. Educated. Better. Until, one day, I realised I was one of ’them’. The roof over my head, paid for by a wife who had become my nurse, had morphed into a tent, pitched in a graveyard.

The discourse around mental health is and always will be complex, but it needs to shift permanently to one of understanding, rather than judgement: clichéd though it may be, most ordinary, working people are indeed only a few paycheques away from the street.

You could be one of ‘them’ – the demonised and dispossessed ‘other’. We don’t like to see people who are homeless, the sad fallout from uncaring capitalism – the ‘dregs’, the ‘scum’, the flipside of opportunity and choice; but we have no sure-fire mechanism in place to see that nobody has to endure this desperate and dangerous situation.

In the UK, we rightly pride ourselves on socialised medical care. Let’s start to roll that out fully to tackle less palpable diseases: not just of the mind, but of ideology. Human beings must take care of each other, and incentivise humanity in those who cannot show it.

It is time to turn the so-called DWP safety net into a universally accessible, solid foundation. More outreach, more discussion, more compassion. Don’t leave it to food banks and churches: they can’t pick up the slack. Don’t ask the poor to feed the poor, in dilapidated cities whose high streets now constitute a serpentine charity shop eating its own tail.

And as for Benefit Street and the ’poverty porn‘ explosion in the media: both the tabloids and the liberals got it wrong. What unfolded was a story of essentially good folk doing their best to form communities under pressures no-one should face. (The argument against “scroungers” falls flat: scroungers don’t have offshore accounts. Everything they are paid, they put back into the economy.) By nature, these communities are fractured – as divided and flawed as the macrocosm that begats them.

More people will continue to die from exposure, disease, suicide and overdose until the stigma is removed. Without stability, a decent home, and humanitarian support in recovering from addictions and breaking the cycle of self-medication, nothing much is going to change.

Merely handing out pills is not usually enough. For addicts to illicit substances, methadone is as insidious as the heroin it replaces; Valium piles misery upon misery. More cash (yes, taxes) must be allocated for dealing with serious mental problems as they begin to manifest – not while they are ending lives.

To get a hospital bed if one is addicted, one has to be near death, or disturbed enough to constitute a clear threat. This is symptomatic of an NHS pushed to the limit dealing with more easily understood illnesses, whose sufferers draw public sympathy more readily than the widely scorned alcoholic or crack user, supposedly driving themselves over a cliff edge of their own free will.

In fact, every one of us would surely do the same to alleviate the internal torture of being alone, isolated and shunned. The shame felt. Stuck in an underclass, a merry-go-round of funding the next shot of relief via theft or prostitution. Intervention is always too little, nearly always too late.

Nobody chooses to have a psychiatric condition. If somebody could forge a magic bullet, a panacea against the misfiring neurons, ’chemical imbalances‘ and resultant bodily urges to dampen the agony of depression, or psychosis, or anxiety, or withdrawal, we’d all take it. Like a shot. We’d be back in society. We’d have friends, and lovers, and families not rent apart by poverty and a thousand cans of noxious cider sold to us by manufacturers that cater solely and amorally to people who struggle with alcohol.

But this kind of magic doesn’t exist, and realistically never will. Instead, we need to talk very, very frankly about a way to nip as many mental-health issues in the bud as soon as possible, before the need for rehabilitation.

If schizoid or bipolar disorders were discussed in the same manner as, say, cancer, that would be a start. It isn’t directly anybody’s fault that society rejects ‘the undesirables’. It is the system we choose to live under. The shelters we have to function to uphold, cannot be maintained by a dysfunctional system.

We, ‘the loonies’, are not useless eaters; we are ill. Properly, genuinely, confusingly ill. And in a twenty-first-century, developed democracy, there are resources aplenty to go around, while the landed wealthy and the new rich sit on empty properties and viciously prosecute squatters.

So I would suggest more dialogue, more action, and more services that actively enable people who are homeless and destitute to move away from Gin Lane, on which they perish in early middle age or younger, and into supported living. Not halfway houses that are falling apart and no better than the workhouse; not hostels in which people communally drink themselves to death with no hope; but morally and professionally well-prepared environments that provide dignity, humane counsel, various forms of therapy, and ultimately recovery, as far as is practicable.

P3, in my experience, has been a marked step in the right direction, and I am grateful to have found appropriate support and caring staff, funded largely by Gloucester Council.

The paradox, of course, is that these services are to be found almost exclusively in the economically stagnant, urban environments toward which troubled people naturally gravitate, whilst the wealthy retreat to pastoral homes (where charity begins!), turning a blind eye.

We now have people in Parliament who are at least paying lip service to ending homelessness – a task that necessitates tackling mental illnesses. Perhaps there is hope after all.