JOHN HUMPHRYS: The REAL mental crisis? Fragile Britain’s ‘obsession’ with ‘stress’


We shall have killed off Covid in six months, or at least learned to live with it. Maybe it will take much longer than six months. But we’ll do it eventually.

That doesn’t mean it will be vanquished for ever: we’ve yet to kill the flu, let alone the common cold. But we have learned to live with them. We always do. Except for one.

There is another sickness out there that has been with us since humans first walked the earth: mental illness.

It has gone through various stages over the millennia. Long ago, people who behaved differently from everyone else were laughed at, or locked away or put to death.

There is another sickness out there that has been with us since humans first walked the earth: mental illness [File photo]

Their demons were exorcised. Their skulls had holes drilled in them to release evil spirits. They were strapped into straitjackets. They suffered unimaginable horrors.

Then, very slowly, science began to assert itself. Such people were no longer seen as lunatics to be shunned, locked up and written off. They were mentally ill and needed treatment.

Eighty-four years ago, the first lobotomy was performed in the United States. The man who invented it was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Countless thousands of operations were performed. But it was not the miracle cure it was claimed to be. Quite the opposite.

The eminent neurosurgeon Henry Marsh summed it up: ‘If you saw the patient after the operation they’d seem alright, they’d walk and talk and say thank you, doctor. The fact they were totally ruined as social human beings probably didn’t count.’

It’s many years since a lobotomy was last carried out, but we all remember One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The film touched a collective nerve.

When Public Health England carried out a survey five years ago, it found that the stigma attached to people with mental health problems remained. Only half of us, for instance, would associate with someone suffering from schizophrenia.

But a lot has changed since then.

No longer do we talk of mental health in hushed tones. Quite the opposite. Now, we talk constantly about mental health ‘issues’, as though they are the inevitable result of whatever difficulties we may find ourselves in at any given time.

When children could no longer go to school back in June, we were solemnly warned that they would probably face mental health issues.

No longer do we talk of mental health in hushed tones. Quite the opposite. Now, we talk constantly about mental health ‘issues’, as though they are the inevitable result of whatever difficulties we may find ourselves in at any given time [File photo]

No longer do we talk of mental health in hushed tones. Quite the opposite. Now, we talk constantly about mental health ‘issues’, as though they are the inevitable result of whatever difficulties we may find ourselves in at any given time [File photo]

On a radio arts programme this week, an interviewee reeled off a list of concerns facing set designers since the theatres had closed. One of them was mental health issues.

Similarly, when students were told they might not be able to get rip-roaringly drunk in their first week at university, we were warned they might face mental health issues. Can that really be true?

It’s not the home-based children, but their parents who might well have been driven bonkers. The set designers may well find themselves out of a job and worry about how to pay the rent. The students may well be bored rigid. All of this is regrettable.

But, surely, these are not ‘mental health issues’. They are what we would once have called ‘worries’ and now have to call ‘stress’. And there are many reasons why this should concern us.

To characterise any and every difficulty in terms of mental health is to belittle the real distress of a truly hideous illness that can destroy lives. Literally.

People with clinical depression often regard themselves as worthless and their lives as pointless. The number of deaths from suicide — mostly men and boys — has been increasing over the past 20 years. Last year, it stood at almost 5,700 in England and Wales.

Many who suffer from serious mental illness need more help than they are getting.

So what are we to make of a report by the Centre for Mental Health charity this week which warned that up to ten million people in England could need ‘mental health support’ as a result of the Covid ‘disaster’?

Yes, you read that figure correctly. That’s one in six of us.

They will, we are told, mostly need help for depression and anxiety.

Let’s remember that we are talking about a virus which vast numbers simply shrug off or may not even know they have had. A virus that leaves children and young people relatively unscathed.

Of course, there are those who really do need help. Top of my own list might be those old people who have been locked away in their rooms in care homes, allegedly ‘shielded’ from those who might infect them. Many will die without having held the hand of someone they love. This is something that should shame us all.

Yet instead of worrying ourselves sick about the real victims in our society, there seems, too often, to be a search for victims of what we must now call ‘stress’.

The latest bizarre scheme to alleviate stress is to take police officers and other emergency service workers surfing.

It’s already happening on the beaches of Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, paid for by grants of more than £120,000 and apparently based on cold water therapy which has been shown to ‘improve levels of overall wellbeing’.

Perhaps I sound callous, but if you sign up to work in an emergency service, don’t you accept that the job will entail a certain amount of stress?

Of course, some people have been hit very hard by Covid. They may very well need help as they recover. Some will have lost loved ones. They, too, may need support to cope with their grief.

But the vast majority of those who have died have been very old or were already suffering from illnesses. And the number of deaths overall is still a fraction of those who have died in the same period from flu and pneumonia.

So where, in heaven’s name, does the Centre for Mental Health’s figure of ten million come from?

The answer lies in the increasingly fashionable assumption that anyone who experiences any sort of setback that has left them depressed or anxious must be suffering from ‘mental health issues’.

But if we accept that assumption, we should all be included. Every last one of us. And that is bunkum.

Put aside the absurd notion that our desperately struggling NHS could begin to cope with even a minuscule proportion of that ten million. 

Ask instead whether we are happy to accept a society in which the phrase ‘mental health issues’ is applied whenever anyone faces problems that make demands of them.

The latest bizarre scheme to alleviate stress is to take police officers and other emergency service workers surfing. It’s already happening on the beaches of Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, paid for by grants of more than £120,000 and apparently based on cold water therapy which has been shown to ‘improve levels of overall wellbeing’

The latest bizarre scheme to alleviate stress is to take police officers and other emergency service workers surfing. It’s already happening on the beaches of Devon, Dorset and Cornwall, paid for by grants of more than £120,000 and apparently based on cold water therapy which has been shown to ‘improve levels of overall wellbeing’

That would absolve us of any individual responsibility to try to find our own way through the crisis. Or cope with a job that may make great demands of us. Or lead any life that is not endlessly rewarding.

I was married to a wonderful woman who worked as a nurse on a new unit that specialised in babies born with spina bifida. So little was known about the disease that the babies with the most extreme symptoms were simply left to die.

It broke her heart and she would sometimes weep when she told me about the latest death. But she would have scoffed at the notion that she had mental health ‘issues’.

Many years later, she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Our daughter gave up her job, her career and her home in London and moved to Wales to care for her night and day until the inevitable end.

And I thought about her and her mother on Monday when I read Dominic Lawson’s moving description in these pages of having a baby 25 years ago with Down’s syndrome. A child who many profoundly ignorant people said should never have been born.

In today’s world, all three (my daughter, her mother and Dominic) would probably have been offered help for the ‘mental health issues’ brought about by the ‘stress’ from which they would surely have been deemed to be suffering.

Well meaning, perhaps, but profoundly mistaken.

The assumption underlying this disturbing new philosophy is that we are nothing but machines that must be regularly serviced and repaired when something goes wrong. We are not.

I know what gave my daughter and her mother the strength to do what they did and I’m pretty sure I know what motivated Dominic and his wife. It’s called love. That is not a mental health issue.

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