Stop plastering over problems

Dale Whetter watches Dispatches: Young, British, and Depressed.

Recently, the debate between the medical model of distress and psychological alternatives has continued to grow, increasing public awareness. After a recent flurry of programmes talking about mental health focusing on more medical approaches, I was sceptical about yet another program. However, this focus on Britain’s youth depression crisis offered a fresh approach.

It began with a number of hard-hitting facts which highlighted the extent of the crisis with over 700,000 referrals to mental health services last year for those under 19, a 45% increase from the two years prior. Dr Marc Bush from Young Minds then highlighted the chronic underfunding of children’s services and the need for them to move away from diagnostic criteria to recognise all distress and offer the correct support. Whilst this isn’t ground breaking for those in psychology, it sent a strong message to those watching and set a precedent for what followed.

Lucy Johnstone discussed how viewing mental health problems as an ‘illness’ detracts attention from the true causes – we should be asking 'what’s happened to you?' not 'what’s wrong with you?'. This was furthered by Gerri Robinson, a headteacher in a deprived area of London who explained the different challenges that children face today, including social media and the unequivocal evidence linking poverty to human distress. At a time when record numbers of children are living in poverty, this was a welcome take-home message. Professor Sami Timimi also suggested that by sending the message out that its ok to have a mental health problem we’ve made people scared of their emotions: ‘putting intense emotions into a bracket of something other than ordinary to experience when growing up’.

However, what Sanah and the program did so well was capture the voices of the young people trying to access services. One such voice was Parveen, who had visited her GP after a difficult period within her family and was referred for talking therapy – but the wait was over six months. When she returned to her GP, she felt that she never had a conversation with them about how she was feeling and was instead prescribed antidepressants. Parveen’s story highlighted the complete lack of choice that many young people face and ultimately, the failure of our services.

The programme then discussed the extreme pressure that GPs are under in such cases; with 86% of 1000 GPs surveyed citing a lack of services as the reason for increases in prescribing antidepressants, and 39% of them would prescribe them to under 18s, whilst only 1% of those think it’s the best treatment for depression. Sanah’s heartfelt acknowledgement of the bravery it takes to seek help and the subsequent reality of a prescription pad instead of being listened to was moving, and raised further questions about the messages we’re sending to our young people in distress.

Overall, I felt Sanah encapsulated the empathy and rapport of psychologists listening to individuals’ stories. She offered validation and reassurance to the young people in a very genuine way and personified the opportunity to talk about their feelings which Parveen, and others interviewed, so desperately need.

This felt like a change in the tide of the massive wave of mental health programs on TV and one which was seamlessly delivered in an accessible and thought-provoking way to the general public. The succinct array of opinions from a range of experts, and considered use of stats, made this highly informative without feeling overwhelming. Whilst it was only 30 minutes in length it shared the thoughts of many psychologists regarding how we understand distress as individuals, communities, and society as a whole. It hopefully paves the way for further discussion leading to meaningful action to address the vast inequalities children face. The message was clear: we need to stop plastering over the problems our young people face, and instead properly fund services to provide the type of support that they genuinely need. 

- Dale Whetter is a Research Assistant Psychologist at LifePsychol Ltd.

Watch the programme now.

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