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Are we really a nation "hooked on happy pills?"

The nation is facing a mental health crisis, but the media sadly doesn't help, often misrepresenting and misunderstanding mental health issues. We therefore weren’t surprised to read one such headline, “Hooked on Happy Pills” by the Daily Mail on 29th December.

Are we really a nation “hooked on happy pills?”

The nation is facing a mental health crisis, but the media sadly doesn’t help, often misrepresenting and misunderstanding mental health issues. We therefore weren’t surprised to read one such headline, “Hooked on Happy Pills” by the Daily Mail on 29th December.

There was much sensationalist hand-wringing about how patients are demanding more medication, backed up by Professor Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry, who claimed in the article that “there’s also more people asking for anti-depressants as a quick fix because either they’re not used to feeling sad or less able to tolerate it”.

We often see people in our services who have been coping with far too much for far too long with little or no support. Hearing this from a professional is disappointing, as it could discourage people from seeking help if they believe this is what their doctors will think of them.

Isolation decreases resilience

We would agree that in an increasingly isolated age, people don’t always have the social support networks to help them through difficult times. This is why we support the Jo Cox Foundation’s Loneliness Campaign and help to raise awareness of loneliness and isolation in our communities. It is also why our #NotAlone social media campaign for Christmas 2017 was designed to encourage people not to suffer alone and to reach out for help from our crisis services in Leeds.

The impact of austerity on the nation’s mental health

What the Daily Mail article also failed to mention is that in our age of austerity, we are seeing more people using food banks, including at Christmas. Around 7.9 million of us are expecting financial difficulties after the holidays as pay fails to keep pace with inflation. Despite this, consumerist pressures to create a perfect Christmas experience, particularly for parents, seem to ramp up every year. People with long-term health conditions (physical, mental, or both) are finding it increasingly difficult to access disability benefits and support. 43% of ESA claimants reported in 2014 that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives, over twice the number than in 2007, according to research carried out by independent researchers NatCen on behalf of NHS Digital. We often see in our crisis work in Leeds that those facing (re)assessments for PIP and ESA will experience a decline in their mental health and an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. And at the same time as people with long term mental health conditions are being told they need to look for work, those same people still face a “locked door” of prejudice, stigma, and barriers to entering the workplace. Disclosing mental health difficulties in work often leads to employees being managed out through capability procedures rather than being offered support.

Had the Mail talked to anyone with lived experience, they might have had a rather different picture of the causes of individual and collective distress than the one given by a psychiatry professor who basically thinks we all need to buck up a bit. The question we should perhaps be asking is, how much adversity and distress should we realistically expect people to tolerate? Do individuals really need to learn to ‘cope better’ or are we living in a society that is simply too hard for many people to cope with?

If not medication, what can GPs offer?

In our current model for treating mental health issues, which is also restricted heavily by an austerity agenda and cuts, medication is often the best a GP can offer in a 10-minute consultation – and what decent GP would want their suffering patient to go out of the door with no hope, however slim? As James Davies (another academic in the field of mental health) rightly pointed out in the article, the waiting lists for talking therapies are too long to help those at crisis point – and talking therapy-based crisis services like LSLCS are sadly not yet established nationwide.

We understand and agree with many of the criticisms of psychotropic medication, especially around potentially dangerous long-term side effects and issues with withdrawal. We also understand, however, that medication helps many people to survive, especially in an acute crisis. We wouldn’t expect people to put up with the pain from a broken leg without proper treatment, but it seems to be acceptable to sneer at those whose emotional distress exhausts their capacity to cope and when there is nothing else on the table to help them, even if it is only the equivalent of putting a plaster over said broken leg when the person really needs a cast, crutches, and months of physiotherapy.

This disappointing article trivialised mental ill health and ignored the social causes of much of the distress for which people find themselves seeking help. We absolutely need to rethink how we understand and respond to mental health issues, especially the social causes behind them, but taking cheap swipes at people who take “happy pills”, usually as an absolute last resort, is not going to help anyone.

Perhaps the media needs to make a belated New Year’s resolution in 2018 to stop misrepresenting mental health issues – it’s about time.

Liz Smith

Edited by Fiona Daniels