Mental health: Why it’s not about new year, new you, but new year, new view

Daniel Khalili-Tari says it’s time for a new view on mental health. Current treatments are not working. We need a more holistic and compassion-focused approach to solve the current crisis

Daniel Khalili-Tari
Monday 08 January 2018 22:15 GMT
Despite government initiatives and continuous promises of change, many with psychological problems say too ‘little has been done’
Despite government initiatives and continuous promises of change, many with psychological problems say too ‘little has been done’ (Getty)

As I nervously wait for my interviewee to arrive my stomach anxiously tightens. Mental health isn’t a topic I’ve written about before. I began my journalism career in the digital era. My value as a writer isn’t measured by the quality of my work. It’s dependent on the amount of Facebook clicks and retweets I get. The ever-increasing financial pressures and stringent time constraints journalists now work under make it harder to investigate complex and sensitive issues. After all, this is the aeon of clickbait journalism.

The new year may be just beginning. But, the deluge of cliche rhetoric is already in abundance. As news publishers battle for online attention spans, generic listicles dominate Twitter feeds: “Eleven ways to lose weight this year”, “Seven tips on how to master your career” and, my personal favourite, “Four reasons to cut out dairy”. But, hold on, it’s not about a “new year new you”, it’s a “new year new view”. Narcissism is so last year. Could you leave your ego behind please?

Despite government initiatives to deal with the mental health crisis and continuous promises of change, many with psychological problems still say “little has been done”.

The topic is marginalised, volatile and multifaceted. But, a different approach is clearly needed. So, where should the UK go from here?

Conor Savage, 23, suffers from mental health problems after a traumatic upbringing. He hasn’t seen his father, who he describes as a “drunk”, in over a decade and as a child he was “sexually abused”, he explains. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 75 per cent of psychological problems are established by the time a person turns 24, with mixed anxiety and depression being the most common symptoms.

Conor, like many others, uses drugs to cope with his daily struggles. His choice of escape is smoking cannabis. “I’ve blazed so much weed over the last six years. I don’t know how I even got a degree,” he says. The suffusion of increasing living costs and economic insecurity has placed young people in a precarious and stressful tapestry. “Only in the last year, during the end of my degree, have I realised I suffer from something,” Conor explains.

More people than ever are seeking help for their mental health, while funding continues to be cut (Getty)

The impact mental health problems have on a person’s life is profound. Symptoms of anxiety and depression – the two most common mental illnesses – can leave people feeling reclusive. Conor says he suffers from “paranoia” and doesn’t want to socialise, while he constantly feels as if he is “battling two people”. However, despite his problems, the aspiring television graduate displays intelligence and rectitude, while having little confidence in the help available. “I’m not a statistic. I don’t just want therapy or medication. I want empathy. I’m a human.”

Having tried various treatments – including cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), private services and drug rehabilitation – Conor says the help he’s received is inadequate. “Honestly from going through the NHS and private therapists, I just want people to know it’s not enough.” Most importantly, he says the services available need to be more empathetic and personalised. “Sometimes I just need some affection. A hug would be nice.”

Latest figures show that the amount of people seeking help for their mental health is rising, while funding for the sector continues to be cut. The most common treatments are talking therapies and psychiatric medication. However, both options take a considerable amount of time before they become effective, while medication can have many unpleasant side effects.

Psychological problems tend to stem from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine regulate the body and transmit signals between nerve cells. The former is responsible for managing emotions and overall physical health, while the latter regulates eating habits and contributes to learning. If a person’s neurotransmitters are hindered in any way, however, problems can arise.

Christmas and the new year are particularly difficult periods for those needing professional help. The festive season inadvertently promotes a state of happiness unattainable for most. This leaves many feeling pressurised, as they believe they must still partake in cultural traditions. Sophie Corlett, from mental wellbeing charity Mind, says:

“Our mental health isn’t put on hold over the festive period, so it’s important that services are able to respond. But with some services, such as GP surgeries, which are closed at points across Christmas, it’s important to check in about what support is available.”

I’m not a statistic. I don’t just want therapy or medication. I want empathy. I’m a human

However, from speaking to Conor, the main question seems to be: Is the support available enough?

Expert in eastern philosophy and medicine, Daniel Reid, 69, has written numerous bestselling books on physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Reid argues most mental health problems are physiologically based and can be treated with proper nutrition and neurologically active medicinal herbs. “The symptoms of mental ‘diseases’ show signs of nervous disorders, not actual illnesses,” he says.

Studies have shown that artificial ingredients in food, air pollution and chronic stress can obstruct a person’s neurological composition. Nonetheless, genetically modified foods are on the rise, while contamination in dense cities increases. Reid, however, says a more holistic approach to living is needed, as “air pollutants, processed foods and stress disrupt brain chemistry”, he adds.

Conversely, many have benefited from the western approach to recovery. Ben Poultney, 34, began to suffer from anxiety and depression six years ago. At the time he was living a healthy life, exercised regularly, ate well and had a good network of family and friends. Stress at work, however, eventually led to him having daily panic attacks, sometimes even two a day. “It started when a new manager came in,” he says. Ben didn’t initially understand why he was so nervous and has had to reflect on his experiences to properly understand how his anxiety developed. “I wish I could have wrote it all down. It would have helped.” His problems worsened when he moved to London and started working on Harley Street. “I would shudder every time my manager was in the room,” he says.

After refraining from seeking help for four years, he went to see his doctor, who arranged CBT for him and prescribed anti-depressants. The help has allowed him to begin living a stable life again: “It all turned out very well,” he says.

However, many haven’t found the typical routes as helpful.

 Ben struggled for four years before having CBT and taking anti-depressants, which ‘allowed him to live a stable life’ 

Harriet Williamson, 26, began developing mental health problems when she was only 13. Harriet, who works as a web editor for a humanitarian charity and as a freelance journalist, has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and suffers from paranoia, as well as generalised anxiety. She’s experienced many difficulties when seeking help from the NHS. “I’ve struggled a lot to receive appropriate treatment, so I now pay for private therapy.” Harriet, like many others, has found that the services available lack consistency. “The help I’ve received has been patchy and insufficient,” she says.

The mental health activist continues to wait for her psychiatric medication to be reviewed after waiting for 18 months and believes a radical overhaul is needed, with appropriate interventions happening before people get to crisis point because of severe self-harm or suicide attempts. She also says changes need to happen in the workplace. “Employers should make reasonable adjustments to enable those with mental health problems to function more comfortably,” she says.

Harriet’s comments make sense. But how can they be achieved?

Professor Paul Gilbert, who in 2011 was awarded an OBE for his contribution to improving mental health, founded the mind treatment known as compassionate focused therapy (CFT). The approach incorporates integrative methodology and includes elements of psychology, evolution theory, neuroscience and Buddhism.

The treatment encourages patients to show more compassion to themselves and others, while helping to bridge the gap between what Professor Gilbert refers to as the “old” and “new” brain.

I want people to know it’s not enough. Sometimes I just need affection. A hug would be nice

The concept is based upon the theory that as human have evolved they have developed two minds. One, which Professor Gilbert refers to as the old brain, helps people take care of their needs. For example by seeking food, shelter and healthy relationships. The second mind, which is described as the new brain, gives people a distinct sense of self, as well as the ability to imagine and visualise.

The problem, however, is said to manifest when both minds confront one another.

As the old brain is responsible for self-preservation, while the new is for individual identity, the tasks of each can intertwine. For instance, a person could become jealous of someone if that person seems socially superior, as their old mind is considering their personal safety and preservation. However, their new mind may try to learn from the person, while visualising and imagining themselves attaining similar recognition. CPT teaches its patients how to confront these problems.

The treatment is aimed at those who have deep feelings of shame, self-doubt, anxiety, little trust in others and a history of emotional or physical abuse. The therapy aims to alleviate self-confidence issues, eating disorders, chronic depression and anxiety.

The service is currently only available privately within the UK and research into the treatment is ongoing, with of a view of it becoming available on the NHS in the next few years.

Academics at the University of Queensland in Australia have found evidence showing that the approach can be useful in helping victims of sexual abuse. Researcher Dr Stan Steindl, an adjunct associate professor at UQ’s School of Psychology, says some of the negative impacts for survivors could be targeted.

Harriet, who now pays for private care, says mainstream services, such as the NHS, are ‘patchy’ and ‘insufficient’

“CFT is used to treat people who experience high levels of shame and self-criticism, helping them understand and respond to their distress from the perspective of a compassionate mind.

“People who have been subjected to sexual abuse express feelings of self-blame and shame, have difficulties in regulating their emotions and forming healthy personal relationships and often use dysfunctional coping strategies, such as the misuse of drugs and alcohol.

“Treatments need to specifically target these problems and offer alternative strategies for understanding and responding to the trauma-based symptoms.

“That’s where CFT comes in – it can help to reduce feelings of shame, strengthen personal relationships and promote healthy coping strategies.”

But is this enough?

Mental health is a complex topic. Its genealogy is rooted in human history, but its causes are yet to be fully understood. When it comes to dealing with the current crisis, however, as German scientist Albert Einstein once explained, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Public services are needed to confront the problem. But treating patients in such a systematic and formulaic way is self-defeating.

The propulsive force of the vulnerable is clear. Yet a more benevolent society is a must in conjunction with an increase in empathy and understanding. The amelioration of the mental health crisis won’t be confronted on an individual level, but instead collectively.

Regardless of whether it’s CPT, eastern philosophy or medication, a more compassionate approach is needed. What’s more, by doing so, those left behind by society can finally be acknowledged.

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