10th October 2017 World Mental Health Day

Peter Kinderman is a professor of Clinical Psychology at the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society and an honorary Consultant Clinical Psychologist with Mersey Care NHS Trust:

“Every year on 10th October, World Mental Health Day gives us an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful diversity of human experience, as well as to reach out with compassion to people affected by mental health problems

We are living in a world of astounding – and very welcome – scientific and professional developments, which give great hope in our joint struggles to improve the health and wellbeing of all citizens. In the field of mental health, however, this perspective must embrace social justice as well as medical or technical perspectives.

While, of course, everything that happens in our minds has a biological correlate, and while it is important to acknowledge the impact of individual differences, it is scientifically illiterate only to look inside our heads to understand and improve our psychological wellbeing.

We know (based, in part, on research conducted here in Liverpool) that economic and social factors are major threats to our mental health, and these aren’t going away. Our mental health and psychological wellbeing are intimately associated with issues such as poverty, social justice, racism, abuse bullying, poor working conditions and domestic violence.

Political issues, such as the funding of mental health services, the work capability assessment, benefits policy and our media attitudes to mental health are also all significant areas of concern. It may well appeal to a political neoliberal agenda to refer only to ‘disorders’ located within the individual, rather than deficiencies in society, but mental health is as much an issue of social justice as it is a specialism within biological medicine.

To promote genuine mental health and wellbeing, we therefore need to protect and promote universal human rights, as enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because experiences of neglect, rejection and abuse are hugely important in the genesis of many problems, we need to redouble our efforts to protect children from emotional, physical or sexual abuse and neglect. More generally, if we are serious about preventing mental health problems from developing, and about promoting genuine psychological well-being, we must work collectively to create a more humane society: to reduce or eliminate poverty, especially childhood poverty, and to reduce financial and social inequalities.

This year, World Mental Health Day 2017 comes with signs of hope, of positive change, of opportunity. In facing these challenges, we are (at least in my opinion) seeing something of a shift in attitudes.

We have seen leadership from politicians and from our royal family. While I am no supporter of hereditary monarchies, I do respect the young royal princes for their positive leadership and empathic approach towards people surviving mental health challenges. The BBC’s ‘Mind over Marathon’ programme offered us a positive image of wonderful people rising to major challenges. More recently, Prince Harry has called for greater investment in alternatives to medication as the only response to psychological distress.

Internationally, July of this year saw a ground-breaking report from a United Nations Special Rapporteur, Dr Dainius Pūras, which recognised that mental health problems are “… strongly linked to early childhood adversities, including toxic stress and sexual, physical and emotional child abuse, as well as to inequalities and violence, including gender based inequalities and gender based violence, and many other adverse conditions which people, especially those in vulnerable situations such as poverty or social exclusion, face when their basic needs are not met and their rights are not protected.”

Dr Pūras’s report therefore argued that: “…a reductive neurobiological paradigm causes more harm than good, undermines the right to health, and must be abandoned…There is a need of a shift in investments in mental health, from focusing on “chemical imbalances” to focusing on “power imbalances and inequalities.”

Here in the UK, we have seen what might be an example of the practical implementation of these approaches. A report for Health Education England, planning the mental health workforce for the future, recommended a shift to a more psychologically informed approach, including not only the of psychological formulation, but also through a greater focus on people’s practical needs, such as in the areas of housing and employment.

Because World Mental Health Day comes around every year, we have the opportunity not only to remind ourselves of the scale of the problems to be addressed, but also to review progress and to balance optimism and pessimism. Humane approaches to mental health are receiving support from politicians and health policy makers, with continued investment in services and commitment to higher standards and better access. And, particularly for me as a psychologist, there is evidence of an increasing awareness of a psychological perspective.

So, campaigners like me will continue to press for reform. But I can also see support from more enlightened politicians, dedicated professionals, intelligent academics and partnership across arts, medicine and science… I see reasons to be optimistic. Have a great World Mental Health Day.”

If you would like to learn how a psychological understanding of our emotions and behaviour gives us new ways to improve mental health and well-being you can always sign up to Professor Kinderman’s online course: ‘Psychology and Mental Health: Beyond Nature and Nurture’ which can be found here on the FutureLearn website.

To listen to the University of Liverpool Podcast featuring Professor Kinderman entitled ‘Is it really mental illness?’ please click here.