Rufus May: We must all learn how to care for one another

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The Independent Online

The medical approach to mental health has created whole industries around helping people. We spent £21bn last year on pills, psychiatrists and brief psychological interventions, all of which create dependence among people, rather than empowering them to help themselves. The whole mental health industry is self-sustaining, so the more you "treat" people and suppress the root causes, the more they will come back for more treatment.

This is a big, expensive fallacy, built on the belief that all mental distress is to do with a second-rate brain. But mental health problems are generally a reasonable response to difficult life circumstances. It is our failure to help people acknowledge and address these root causes – lifestyle, relationships, work conditions, loneliness, lack of opportunities, and abuse – that has led to mental distress rates in the UK being among the highest in Europe.

As an NHS psychologist, I am working at the wrong end of things. People like me are being asked to work with those peoplewho have already burnt out, which I love, but is this the best use of resources? We should be working in schools, churches, community organisations and workplaces, to help stop people ever reaching breaking point.

As a society we no longer know how to take care of each other. We need a complete re-think: more money learning how to relate to each other, care for one another, and tolerate each other, rather than more psychiatrists, more nurses, more psychologists and more drugs. We need to work alongside distressed people and help them become more resilient, not treat them like lepers. Such stigma about mental health is shattering people, yet there is no such thing as ill or not ill, no "them" and "us"; mental health is a continuum we all move along. At the moment, we are spending billions of pounds on boats to rescue those who are drowning, when we should be teaching everyone, from a very young age, how to swim and how to help those who are floundering.

Part of this is teaching people, especially children, about mental distress, showing them how to be kinder and more generous if a friend stops eating or is self-harming, so that professionals are not the only answer.

Rufus May is a clinical psychologist, working in West Yorkshire