Depression: Time to think more about prevention?

"Focusing on depression this World Health Day serves as a reminder that thinking about health should not be limited to conversations about funding the NHS, although of course this is important. It’s also a call to consider how environments - from schools and offices to care homes – could better promote wellbeing, rather than stress and anxiety"

For this year’s World Health Day, the World Health Organisation is encouraging a global conversation about depression. In the UK, the Time to Change campaign has helped to tackle some of the stigma around mental illness. But are we doing enough to keep people healthy and prevent mental health problems early on in life?

While societal attitudes towards mental illness seem to be changing for the better – not least because of initiatives such as Time to Change, which encourages people to talk more openly about their mental health – there is little progress in the prevalence of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Particularly worrying is the large increase in rates of these psychosocial disorders for young people over recent years. The Youth Trends analysis by King’s College London found significantly higher rates of worry, irritability, and sleep disturbance in today’s young people than for their counterparts two decades ago. On a personal level, I have been shocked by younger teenagers I know voicing their anxieties about debt and job prospects after university before they’ve even started their GCSEs.

Three-quarters of adult mental health disorders start before the age of eighteen, so understanding how these burgeoning concerns and pressures might lead to young people becoming mentally unwell is an important task. Finding effective ways of reducing mental distress early on is urgent. One suggestion with growing support is for schools to introduce statutory Personal, Social, Health, Economic (PSHE) education with a specialist focus on mental health, alongside the now statutory Sex and Relationship Education.

The Prime Minister has also announced that teachers from all secondary schools in England will receive training in Mental Health First Aid. This is great, but within the context of frozen or cut budgets to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in recent years, it’s little help for the young people that teachers identify as needing specialist support. That’s before even taking into consideration the pressures on depleted school budgets and time-poor teachers, or broader issues such as the relationship between mental ill health and socio-economic disadvantage.  

Policies to support the mental health of children and adults necessarily cut across a range of government departments, just as our own mental health impacts every aspect of our life. Focusing on depression this World Health Day serves as a reminder that thinking about health should not be limited to conversations about funding the NHS, although of course this is important. It’s also a call to consider how environments - from schools and offices to care homes – could better promote wellbeing, rather than stress and anxiety. It’s an invitation to find ways of addressing the worries of young people by changing the system, rather than expecting them to somehow become more resilient. This is a big challenge, but maybe our future happiness depends on it. 

 

Natasha Wynne is a Young Fabians Member and Comms Officer of the Health Network. Follow her on twitter at @najwynne

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