Sustaining life expectancy requires a revolution mental health attitudes

All over this country, people who are, in fact, physically healthy are taking their own lives

Mental health is no longer about ‘them’ but about ‘us’. It has become a human rights issue. Photograph: Thinkstock

Mental health is no longer about ‘them’ but about ‘us’. It has become a human rights issue. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Are we at the limit of what medical science can do to increase life expectancy? Are we about to go into reverse unless we move the mental health of men and women to the top of the priority list?

If we are, then advocates for the health and wellbeing of both men and women need to make mental health their issue.

Recent reports from the United States suggest that the life expectancy of white, middle-aged Americans is starting to fall. This, it appears, is due to harmful levels of drinking, drug abuse and suicide. The rate of suicide is almost four times higher for men than for women, a situation we are all too familiar with in this country. Indeed, Irish men in that age group (45-64) are at the highest risk for suicide, while among women the highest-risk age group is 25-44.

People who take drink or drugs to an extent that endangers their lives have a mental health issue. For instance, getting over the physical withdrawal symptoms connected with giving up drink or drugs is relatively simple compared with the long haul of beating the psychological dependency. Suicide, too, is a mental health issue for most people who take their own lives, I think most of us can agree.

The US has developed remarkably good physical medical treatments but having the best physical systems in the world doesn’t stop life expectancy from reversing if psychological or emotional issues lead people to behave in ways that bring immense harm to them.

Aside from the issues I have mentioned above, there’s also the question of obesity and statistics suggest that obesity is about to reverse the trend towards increasing longevity in the US. Again, it seems to me that obesity is at least partly a mental health issue.

I am not denying, by the way, that the development of these trends owes a huge amount to the marketing of sugar, alcohol and drugs by legal and illegal operators. But good mental health is crucial to reducing susceptibility in the population and to promoting and sustaining recovery.

Revolution in attitudes

Add to the above the World Health Organisation prediction that depression will be the world’s major health issue within a decade and a half and you can see, I would suggest, that mental health is now more important than physical health in terms of making progress in this whole area.

All over this country, people who are, in fact, physically healthy are taking their own lives. The reticence of the media in reporting these sad events, usually for fear of inadvertently causing more suicides, blunts the impact somewhat. But is there a reader of this column who hasn’t heard at some stage of a cluster of suicides in some part of the country that they know?

Yet the provision of widely available, comprehensive mental health services has just not happened. And I think Irish people have come around to the view that this is not only regrettable; it’s unacceptable.

Protests against the decision to re-allocate €12 million of mental health funding to other areas underlined that.

As I write, I don’t know if that decision will have been reversed by the time you read this, but that’s not the point. The point is that the making of the decision in the first place suggests that the people who run the health services are out of touch with this new reality.

The reaction to the re-allocation suggests to me that public attitudes are changing in the sense that mental health is no longer about “them” but about “us”. It has become a human rights issue and not only a social services issue.

It was significant that the organisers of a protest against the cuts included the Union of Students in Ireland. If young people make this their issue, expect to see change.

Padraig O’Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. pomorain@yahoo.com Twitter: @PadraigOMorain

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