Tackling the causes of mental illness is the only way we’re really going to help people get better

psysocial change

Further to our last post, What future in mind? Critical Perspectives on Youth Wellbeing and Mental Health Psychologists for Social Change argue powerfully that Tackling the causes of mental illness is the only way we’re really going to help people get better.

If we don’t examine the wider context of why and how someone develops their distress, the problem can end up being situated inside the person. It is a person’s brain that is the problem and not these wider factors. This individualisation of psychological distress not only puts the onus for recovery squarely on the individual’s shoulders, but it shifts the focus away from the societal, cultural and political factors which contribute to people being in these positions in the first place.

Thinking about mental health as something that starts and stops with the individual is never going to lead to a healthier and more connected society. We need to see the bigger picture, to consider how things like social disadvantage and inequality tug at the very fabric of what makes society functional. We need to draw on other approaches, like community psychology, public health and mental health impact assessments of policies. Policymakers are not blind to this. NHS England, for example, uses a formula that takes into account health inequalities when it assigns resources to local health authorities. But it needs to go much further than this. Tackling the social root causes needs to be at the core of all policy.

 
One current example that may turn out to be a missed opportunity is the government’s recent proposals for child and adolescent mental health. This is vital to get right as the association between social disadvantage and mental health starts young – in the UK, family income has been found to be inversely related to socioemotional difficulties in children as young as three.

With its narrow focus on the role that schools and colleges can play, the government’s proposal is actually a huge diversion away from the real issues, which we would argue is rising poverty and poor educational policies. And we are not the only ones to think so – last week a joint report from the Education and Health and Social Care Select Committees found that “it lacks any ambition and fails to consider how to prevent child and adolescent mental ill health in the first place”. Their report also revealed that the connection between social disadvantage and youth mental health was not part of the brief that the researchers, providing the evidence to underpin the proposals, were given. In short, it wasn’t part of the conversation from the get-go.

This needs to change. It is time to start a more sophisticated conversation around mental health that leads to more sophisticated action.

Note on the authors:

Annabel Head is a clinical psychologist and Jessica Bond is a writer. Both are members of Psychologists for Social Change, a group established to highlight the social determinants of psychological distress

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