Welcome to this week’s news, one and all. I am completely incapable of thinking up some kind of witty repartee as an introduction – no change there, then, I suppose – so will just get stuck into it. There is a focus on young people and mental health today’s article, though other stories are covered too.
There is some discussion of the following in this TNIM: suicide, welfare “reform”, the Anders Breivik trial (could be triggering for anyone who was hurt/knows someone who was hurt or killed in his attack) and natural disasters.
As Sue Baker (Director of the Time to Change campaign) writes at Politics.co.uk, last Thursday saw a remarkable debate in the British House of Commons. During the discussion on mental health, no less than four MPs ‘owned up’ to their own mental health problems.
Section 141 of the Mental Health Act excludes MPs from remaining MPs if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months. Other historic Acts also bar people from doing their civic duty by serving on a jury, being an active member of the business world by being a company director.
This outdated section of the Act assumes that when someone has a mental health problem and needs hospital treatment (for which they were sectioned for more than six months), they are immediately deemed incompetent for the rest of their lives and the prospect of recovery a far off notion, when in reality the opposite is true.
Gavin Barwell MP is seeking to overturn this legislation based on archaic concepts of mental health problems with his mental health (discrimination) bill. We reached a significant milestone yesterday with the debate and the frank and moving disclosure by Charles Walker MP, Kevan Jones MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, and Andrea Leadsom MP. One a former doctor, one a previous minister and between all four covering a range of mental health issues including OCD, severe depression, and post-natal depression. There was cross-party unity on the need to tackle stigma and discrimination.
It was Kevan Jones’ words that provided the greatest insight into his assessment of the professional risk he was about to take, by revealing his own experiences of “deep depression” that even some family members were not aware of. Addressing the Speaker of the House he said: “I just hope you realise, Mr Speaker, that what I’m saying is very difficult right now.” He’d thought “long and hard” about whether to disclose his experience, the evening before the debate. He discussed how politicians are afraid to disclose as “admitting to fault or failure we will be looked on disparagingly by the electorate and our peers”.
Yesterday was a very significant milestone, and there has been an outpouring of hope from people with mental health problems posting messages on Facebook and setting off a twitter trend during the debate but we have a long way to go until people can live lives to their full potential as active and equal citizens, free from discrimination.
We need to build on the momentum of this remarkable debate in the Commons, and ensure that the efforts of those four MPs yesterday has more than a fleeting impact in a busy political and news agenda.
I watched the mental health debate with gladness and admiration; it was amazing to hear MPs arguing that we need more investment in mental health, and it was even better to watch the courage and eloquence of the Members that openly spoke of their own experiences of mental illness. I particularly enjoyed Charles Walker’s humourous yet poignant exploration of his OCD, and was delighted to see him interviewed that evening by Channel 4 news. Most of the mainstream television media ignored it altogether…as, sadly, did most MPs. Whilst it was uplifting to listen to the views and tales of those that were present, it was simultaneously depressing (appropriately enough) to see that so few had bothered to attend this important debate.
In Canada, Josh Lewis from the Estevan Mercury writes an obituary of Andre Parker, a promising young ice hockey player, who sadly took his own life after battling depression.
On Monday, Parker’s parents, Leo and Sharon, announced through the league’s website that their son had committed suicide and had been fighting depression.
It’s a stark reminder that mental health issues can affect anyone, no matter their age or lot in life, and no matter how well things appear to be going for them.
I never met Parker, but by all accounts he was a fine young man who decided halfway through last season to leave the Millionaires and begin his post-secondary education at the University of Saskatchewan.
The 19-year-old winger and defenceman was known more for his toughness than his scoring prowess, recording 165 penalty minutes and 13 points over a year and a half with his hometown Millionaires.
I truly hope that something good comes out of this tragedy, and that would be people suffering through depression or suicidal thoughts knowing that help is available.
Along with developing hockey players, most, if not all SJHL teams now provide some form of an educational adviser for their players. Ensuring their well-being and providing resources to help with mental health issues must also be a priority.
Athletes are not immune to depression; in fact, they may be more vulnerable to it with the pressures that come along with their sport, particularly in the junior hockey world.
Another sad loss to the sporting world. As Lewis says, athletes are not immune to depression - no one is. I hope that Andre’s parents’ and Lewis’s wish that Andre’s death not be in vain is realised. As Mr and Mrs Parker state, we need to watch out for each other – and, I’d add, ourselves too.
The Guardian has, as ever, comprehensive covering of mental health news. In one unsurprising, but nonetheless disturbing, story the paper reports that civil servants are concerned about something that’s been troubling the rest of us for months (years?): the possibility of suicides precipitated by “reforms” of sickness and disability benefits.
The warning, contained in an internal email sent to staff by three senior managers of the government-run jobcentres, warns staff that ill-handling of benefit changes for vulnerable claimants could have “profound results” and highlights the case of one suicide attempt this year.
It emphasises the need for the “utmost care and sensitivity” when dealing with customers, as a result of “difficult changes which some of our more vulnerable customers may take some time to accept and adjust to”.
The email, adds: “Very sadly, only last week a customer of DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] attempted suicide” – which it adds is “said to be the result of receiving a letter” informing him that his sickness benefit would be cut off.
The memo will crystallise concerns among charities, campaigners and medical professionals over the impact of welfare reforms on the mental health of some of Britain’s most vulnerable people.
Disability campaigners privately warned ministers last year that flaws in the work capability assessment, would lead to some mentally ill people taking their own lives. But they said they were accused by ministers of scaremongering.
Neil Coyle of the charity Disability Rights UK, said: “The government is cutting direct support for thousands of disabled people and using a process to do so which is unfit for purpose. The assessment process for out of work benefits needs urgent improvement to ensure genuine needs are identified properly and to avoid further tragic consequences.
If the government’s own employees are now recognising the folly of the welfare changes, shouldn’t they finally take notice of the dangers of what they’re doing? Of course they should – but will they? I’m afraid that I’m doubtful
The Guardian‘s comment section, Comment is Free, runs an excellent piece on the implications of the Anders Breivik trial: how do we legally define (in)sanity? The paper’s foreign affairs correspondent looks at the dichotomy between the vagueness and overlap of diagnoses versus the need for absolute clarity in law.
Even DSM-IV, on which the two psychiatrists relied heavily, as Thomas Widiger, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky and former research co-ordinator on the manual, has argued, “is a compelling effort at a best approximation of a scientifically based nomenclature, but even its authors have acknowledged that its diagnoses and criterion sets are highly debatable”.
The law – not least in the Breivik case – is not interested in abstractions. It requires a concrete definition so that it can say if this man is not suffering from psychosis then he is fully responsible for his actions.
Which leads one to wonder whether the general principle of how responsibility is defined in law is the real problem – not the uncertainties of diagnosis – a too narrow insistence that psychosis must be identifiable before one can talk of responsibility or not.
As Sorheim herself asserted last week: “As soon as Breivik opens his mouth you know he is not normal,” a statement many would agree with.
The question then is how the law should deal with individuals like Breivik. Should penal codes be less absolute on the issue, allowing courts to be more flexible in considering whether degrees of illness, that fall short of the test of psychosis, may have contributed to the crime?
Because the lack of room for doubt offers a nightmare scenario in itself, a choice between two interpretations, that in this case has wide political and social implications for Norway. If Breivik is not insane, that ruling will cast a long shadow over how the country deals with extremists. If he is judged to be insane the consequence is equally profound, as one of the lawyers for the victims told me: “If he is mad, if he is not responsible, if he is not guilty then that means we will have to pity him.”
I wrote my own piece on Breivik some time ago, asking why when groups (eg. the World Trade Centre bombers) act in the name of screwed-up “ideology”, they are not branded mentally ill. Admittedly, I’m not sure that they went around talking about the Knights Templar – but there are plenty of supposedly sane people that do (New World Order conspiracy theorists, for example). Whatever the case, if Breivik is found to be ‘insane’, it’s imperative that the courts and media assure the wider public that mental illness and violence are rarely connected. Sadly, I’m preparing for the usual “PSYCHO!“, “NUTTER!” headlines that serve to keep misconceptions alive in the popular consciousness.
In last week’s TNIM, Robert (AKA The Stranger) highlighted a story from Australia which discussed a governmental initiative to “screen” young children for indicators of possible future mental illness. This week, Australian mental health news is dominated by a substantial backlash against these proposals. One article - in the Australian Financial Review – accuses certain individuals and organisations in the arena of mental health of “faddism”.
While mental illness is a recognised medical condition, for which significant research advances have been made in recent decades, it is also subject to faddism. The tabloid media use depression alarmism as a way of selling papers. It fits neatly into their technique of scaring parents about the future of their children. Too many families have accepted this message, confusing the regular childhood traits of solo play and separation anxiety with mental illness.
For the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies, depression has become an enormous money-spinner, leading some experts to warn against over-diagnosis. Gordon Parker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of NSW, has told of conversations with leading psychiatrists, inquiring about the relationship between diagnosis and treatment. One responded: “The question is of no importance, as I give everyone anti-depressant drugs.”
Another replied: “I ask the patient what treatment they would prefer.”
In his foreword to the KidsMatter primary school evaluation report in December 2009, Kennett claimed “the number of mental health difficulties in students diminished”. This is untrue.
No students were diagnosed by the program as suffering from mental illness. Its evaluation methodology was to ask teachers and parents to fill in questionnaires on student behaviour – traits all children (and adults) display at one time or another such as sadness, nervousness, lying and restlessness.
Even by this nebulous measure, the study found “the majority of students were rated as having few mental health difficulties”. Focus groups were also conducted with 10-year-old students, “prompting the children to think about situations in which someone is feeling sad and discouraged” – again, an unexceptional part of growing up.
Like so much of the mental illness industry, KidsMatter is an attempt to medicalise normality.
Giving all your patients anti-depressants is a first class twat of an idea, but asking the patient what he or she wants in their treatment seems fair enough to me. I mean, psychiatrists et al are specialists in this, I get that – but if we’re at all able, shouldn’t we be able to have at least some say in and control over our own care? In that way, I found this piece a little cynical, but it does raise important questions as to where we draw the line between normal life experiences and feelings and genuine mental health concerns.
Staying in Oz, but moving to a different subject, The Conversation looks at the mental health impacts of meteorological disasters in remote areas.
Rural communities often do well at connectedness but are vulnerable to poor health due to socioeconomic disadvantage, reduced access to health services and a culture of stoicism that puts people off seeking help. Climate change can play into this dynamic. It may affect mental health by making weather-related disasters more intense and terrifying; it may also harm physical health and community well-being.
Damage to land and buildings can create economic pressures that force people off their farms or out of their businesses. When this happens, communities’ social infrastructure is at risk. It is this last link in the chain – a loss of social capital and connectedness – that hits mental health hardest.
More worrying still (and this is where rural and remote Australians are again particularly at risk), weather-related disasters discriminate. Vulnerable people and places are worst affected, especially those most reliant on the land. In Queensland’s “summer of sorrow”, poorer people and those living in rural and remote locations were more severely exposed to Cyclone Yasi and the floods, and they suffered greater trauma and distress than other Queenslanders.
To respond effectively to this challenge, it makes sense to pay special attention to people and industries over-represented in rural and remote Australia, especially Aboriginal people, farmers, miners and tourism operators. The evidence base for these groups is small-to-non-existent but there has been some systematic consideration of the first two.
Stigma, lack of appropriate services and the expense of delivering services in remote settings make it impossible to adequately address Aboriginal people’s mental health needs solely through a mainstream medical approach. And, mainstream approaches fail to accommodate the relationship between Aboriginal well-being and connectedness to land.
Here in the UK – a relatively small country, with a mediocre but relatively stable climate – we are mostly unfamiliar with issues such as this, and as such I at least had never really thought about how difficult it must be for people in truly remote places should they have a mental illness, or develop symptoms after some sort of trauma. But it seems so utterly obvious now; how can these people be helped in these circumstances, when they’re hundreds – potentially thousands, maybe? – of miles away from mainstream services? This should be a priority for large countries when considering their mental health policies.
In Namibia, as reported by the Namibia Economist, it is reported that children in particular are having difficulty accessing adequate healthcare. This includes mental health care, where the existing provisions are said to be wholly inadequate.
In recognition of the Day of the African Child, the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) highlighted a number of challenges that children with disabilities face. These includes lack of information about the needs of children with disabilities and disorders, insufficient provision of and access to healthcare services to these children, medical aid programmes discriminate against clients who are suffering from mental as opposed to physical health problems. Also, according to LAC, public awareness about mental health conditions is limited and there are only a few places where people can access the information.
According to Namibia’s Mental Health Policy, the government provides a total of 211 psychiatric beds for the mental health needs of the entire population. In 2012 the Health Professions Council of Namibia reported that there are 96 registered psychologists. The current Namibian mental law and policy, which according to the LAC are both outdated, make insufficient reference to the specific needs of children with mental health disabilities and disorders and the drafted Mental Health Bill is yet to be tabled in Parliament.
Furthermore, patients visiting state healthcare facilities are expected to pay an admission fee, even though a waiver system exists. However, many people who are eligible for the waiver are not aware of it. Hence, according to the LAC, the admission fee can be a barrier to some people, resulting in some children not getting the healthcare services that they need.
I know from personal experience, and from reading blogs from this age group, that mental health problems amongst young people aren’t always taken seriously – and that’s here, in a ‘developed’ country. I can only imagine the difficulties and distress that face children with a mental illness (obviously very distressing in itself) in a place where services are so scant. It’s easy for me to say, and I know that a country like Namibia will have a substantial number of competing priorities, but forgetting about these children and allowing the country’s public to remain oblivious to this problem sounds like a recipe for disaster to me – in both macro and micro terms.
In the wake of a recent study in the British Medical Journal that asserted that exercise made no difference to a person’s mental health, Swedish website The Local runs a story suggesting the opposite: those fit as teens are less likely to develop emotional problems in adulthood.
To reach these results, the scientists have reviewed physical fitness tests carried out on some 1.1 million healthy Swedish males. Test results were taken from the formerly obligatory military enlistment tests at age 18 and matched with later medical records.
The results were clear, according to scientists, showing that low levels of physical fitness during youth increased the risk of depression later in life.
And the good effects of early physical exercise could remain for up to 40 years, the study showed.
“I was surprised that the effects of exercise in youth can make a difference for so many years,” said Åberg to TT.
The study comes rather too late for me As someone who generally loathes physical activity, I went around pretending that the BMJ story was definitive evidence that I could sit on my arse. However, there has been so much evidence against it – both anecdotal and academic, such as this – so I may have to ultimately try to modify my lifestyle habits in order to maintain whatever vestiges of sanity I still have…
This week’s wildcard is a story of the difficulties faced when training for TV journalism.
TV reporter mistakes sex toy for rare mushroom
A trainee TV reporter was left red-faced after accidentally mistaking a male sex toy for what she believed was a rare mushroom.
Novice reporter Ye Yunfeng was sent to investigate when Xi’an TV station received a tip-off about the ‘strange fungi’ growing in a Chinese village.
Believing the sex aid was a ‘rare medicinal Taisui mushroom’, Ms Yunfeng then proceeded to film an in-depth feature about the sex toy.
It involved several dubious close-ups and a detailed explanation about the conditions needed for the ‘mushroom’ to grow.
Describing the toy, the reporter commented: ‘We can see there is something like a mouth; and on the other side there is a hole that connects all the way through to the other end.
‘It is very smooth. It feels very much like meat.’
Xi’an TV realised its mistake after being bombarded with calls by members of the public who pointed out it was actually a sex toy for men.
The station published an apology over the incident online, saying: ‘The incident was purely due to the inexperience of our young reporter. We say sorry.’
I would imagine that anyone that had the misfortune to witness this segment would have felt something like this.
Enjoy the rest of your week!