Speaking up: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the London Marathon. They were there with Heads Together, in partnership with eight leading mental health charities, tackling stigma, raising awareness, and providing vital help for people with mental health problems. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
My toddler has recently learned to talk, and she speaks as if she’s recording her podcast, an unedited till roll of thoughts with a small pause for congratulations at the end. Occasionally she will prod me for praise. “That was a lovely story I just told wasn’t it?” Yes baby. “I piggy pardon?” Yes, that was a lovely story.
It very often is a lovely story, but a time will have to come, maybe when she turns three, when she will learn that talking is not enough. Talking is rarely the end – talking is the vehicle, the bus, the bike. The meandering journey to another place.
Talk is cheap. And that’s the problem, for me, with our current focus on “awareness”. This has been Mental Health Awareness Week, with coverage that’s diverse and moving. Much is invested in awareness at the moment – of mental health, of abuse, of sexual violence – in talking about the things that have been traditionally hidden. And often, as with Prince Harry discussing the way grief affected him, talk has been important and inspiring. And often, as with Stormzy appearing on the cover of the NME against his will in a piece about depression, it sparks new conversations.
But then what? There you are, awareness raised. There you are, a person, say, who has long questioned the darkness of your moods, the places your mind takes you at moments of stress, and Prince Harry – a man with literally everything except a surname – admits he sought help for similar feelings, and you think, I could do that. I could get help, like Prince Harry did. So you make an appointment with your GP. It’s in two months’ time, but OK. You plan a morning off work. And two months roll on, speckled with panic attacks and weekends in bed, and then suddenly, there you are, describing your break-up, the way you get obsessed with things like cloud cover, and how you felt suicidal last week at a Holiday Inn off the North Circular. You are put on a waiting list, and there you stay, for months. For almost a year, in fact, in which time the wait itself sends you spiralling. Aware, but spiralling. But aware. But spiralling.
Theresa May has pledged to tackle the “stigma” around mental health, and praised Harry for speaking up. But the mental health crisis has been fuelled by her party’s policies, and exacerbated by the scything of services. We can weigh it in our hands. Here, the fact that the number of young people arriving in A&E with psychiatric problems has doubled since 2009 and two thirds of British adults say they’ve experienced mental ill health. Here, that spending on mental health services is being cut by millions. And you glance down, and you feel slightly, “stigma schmigma”, do you not?
What makes this even murkier, for me, is how things like the Stormzy episode (where the grime artist was surprised to see himself on the cover of the NMEabove the line, “Depression: It’s time to talk”) exposed the way these conversations have been commodified. Sure talk is cheap, but confessions are valuable, and today mental illness is worth its weight in headlines.
Of course we should talk, Of course there should be no stigma around asking for help – that is the absolute bare minimum that humans can do, there should be no applause for basic empathy. So what then? What happens when we have served that bare minimum, when everybody has acknowledged that we, or our friends, family, colleagues are struggling, when men, especially, have shrugged off the ancient impulse to hide? The government applauding a media that’s urging people to talk, encouraging us to seek help while simultaneously crushing it bug-like underfoot, seems a particularly cruel twist to an increasingly dystopian tale.
We can talk until our throats are burning, but that is not the end. Cuts to services must be scrapped, hospitals must be supported, we need an infrastructure to the conversation, safe places to go. It’s as if Theresa May is waving around a conch shell to distract from the puddle of blood to her right. Talking is important, but not if it’s just words. Not if, like me, you find yourself nodding, blindly nodding. Yes baby. That was a lovely story. What happens next?