Are mental health services essential?

 mental illness is draining

The word “essential” is perhaps one of the most overused of our time. It’s definition according to lexico.com is “Absolutely necessary; extremely important.” And yet I frequently see it used in a myriad of ways which are patently at odds with that definition.

The misuse that irritates me the most, for no obvious reason, is “essential oils”. I have never used one of these oils in my life – indeed I am not even sure what they are for. But I appear to still be relatively fine – so in what way are they essential? We also find music albums titled “The Essential Collection”. Again, plenty of people are getting by just fine without them, so again it seems to be a misuse of the term.

Now as a copywriter I know that advertisers need to persuade people how much they need the goods or services they are promoting, and saying that they are essential, that your life will  be significantly poorer without them, is a good way to do this. But as is so often the case, the frequent misuse of the term renders it much weaker when it really does apply. The same is happening to other words – “unique” is another that springs to mind. Almost every day now I hear things described as “very unique”. Either something is unique or it is not – “very unique” is meaningless, in the same way as “a bit pregnant”.

I realise that this probably annoys me a great deal more than it does other people and more than it should, but part of my autism is to take words very literally, so misuse in this way gets to me. But much more importantly, it makes it all the more hard to emphasise the importance of things that really do matter. It is like judging the first entry you see in an art competition 10 out of 10 and then realising that every other entry is significantly better. There is nowhere left to go, no way to differentiate further.

The point that I am getting to far too slowly here is that mental health services are absolutely essential, but not in the 2020 meaning of the word  which can be summed up as “maybe a nice thing to have for some people if you can fit it in.” Mental health services are essential for all people at all times in the original sense of the word – fundamentally important for a basic standard of living.

Now at this point I could quote you any number of statistics about the prevalence of mental illness and the damage it causes, but I really don’t think I need to. You almost certainly have a good friend or family member who has or is struggling with their mental health, or you have done so yourself. You will almost certainly have gone through times of great sadness and despair that impacted every part of your life and felt like they would never end. That, in a nutshell, is a mental health issue, and for some of us, those awful feelings are a regular occurrence with or without an obvious trigger, and even a way of life.

Like physical health, not all mental health problems will require outside support or intervention. I do not go to my doctor every time I cut myself, however little blood there is (which is a very good thing for my doctor given how clumsy I am!) I know that given a bit of time my cut finger will heal by itself and I just need to keep an eye on it. But equally when my knee started hurting and several months later it was hurting even more despite resting it, I knew that it was time to get a professional to have a look at it.

If anything, expert advice can be even more important on mental health than physical health. If you have a rash, you can look up pictures of rashes and compare them to your own to get an idea of how serious it might be. There are some amazing tools for tentative self-diagnosis available now, though of course you should always seek proper medical help for anything at all serious.

But this is much harder with mental health issues for two reasons. Firstly, there is very little that you can actually see. It is, by definition, all in the mind. You can see how someone is behaving, which can give insight to their mental health, but you cannot see inside their head (and knowing how the inside of my head frequently is, that is a very good thing!). So making valid comparisons and judgments is almost impossible as everything is subjective and depends on the person concerned expressing their feelings at the time.

Which brings me to the second problem. The only person that really knows your thoughts is you. Mental illness is, by definition, an issue with your thought processes. So you end up effectively trying to use a broken tool to work out how to fix that same tool, which is never going to go well. It ends up as a complex version of the song “There’s a hole in my bucket” where it becomes apparent that in order to effect a repair to a leaky bucket, a fully functioning bucket is required.

The answer in the bucket example, of course, is to use a second bucket to fetch the water needed to mend the first, and that is exactly why mental health services are so important. There are aspects of menta health that are almost impossible to fix for yourself. You may be able to apply a little mental first aid, but a long-term solution needs expert support.

On top of this, consider the role that our brains play in our lives. These days you can manage without pretty much any other part of your body it seems, thanks to the genius of our doctors. But the brain is still essential. When the brain is declared inactive, the rest of the body can sometimes be kept alive by machines, but it would be hard to argue that the poor person concerned is in any way actually living.

Our brains and the thoughts they generate control every single aspect of our lives. Even hearts and lungs can be transplanted, but the brain and our mental health is irreplaceable, so it has to be properly cared for and protected.

I share the unfortunately common trait among many men of really, really not liking going to the doctor if I can possibly avoid it, and have frequently had bad experiences when I do. But I will freely acknowledge that twice medical interventions in respect of my mental health have transformed my life for the better and quite possibly saved it altogether.

Firstly, a doctor recognised that my depression was destroying my life and was able to prescribe medication which I still use to this day. I am still not exactly Mr Happy, but I can now cope for most of the time at least. The little pills that I still take every morning are absolutely essential to my wellbeing in the true sense of the word, and continue to transform my life.

The second time was when, quite recently, I had my diagnosis of autism confirmed by medical experts. I had been relatively sure that I was autistic for some time, and the always infallible internet questionnaires confirmed this, but the first time that an expert agreed that I was autistic I burst into tears on the spot. It was such a relief and explained so much. Having that diagnosis has now opened so many doors for me to understand myself better and to get help and support when I need it.

I still hate seeing a doctor, but if I can do it, anybody can. But of course, only if there is a suitable doctor available.

I have long felt that the two worst types of pain that I have experienced are toothache and backache.  Both can be absolutely excruciating. But I am wrong. The greatest pain by far is that of mental illness, when you feel your world falling apart from the inside out and the tool that is best equipped to deal with that and the other problems you face is the very thing that is broken. I have been there more than once, and without mental health services as well as good friends and family, I can confidently say that I would probably not be here today. Sadly, there are many who are no longer with us because the support and help they needed was not available.

If essential really means anything, it is the very few things that are absolutely vital for life – food, water, air, shelter and proper care when needed. That includes mental health care as well as physical health care, and I do not believe that we can call ourselves truly civilised until it is freely available to all without question or barrier. Sadly, there is still a long way to go to achieve this.

Even the longest journey starts with a single step, and before even that, with the recognition that the journey must be made at all. Universal recognition of the need for mental health services would be huge progress.

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