Written by Adam Jones, UKCP Policy and Advocacy Officer
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is stress.
While stress is a perfectly normal part of being a human, it can also be a cause of mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and is often linked to self-harm and suicide.
And discussing these issues openly in a relatable way is what Mental Health Awareness Week is all about.
My role here at UKCP is in policy and advocacy, and I am passionate about promoting greater access to therapy for people experiencing stress and related mental health issues. And, very often, that’s people like me.
I am what they fashionably call a ‘millennial’. If you don’t know what that means – if, indeed, it means anything – I will try to define myself in that context. I’m 24 years old, I have a considerable student debt, I don’t own my own home, and I’m definitely partial to avocado on toast.
So why is improving access to therapy so important to me?
Because I know from personal experience about the difference it can make in tackling life’s challenges.
Psychotherapy has given me the tools to pause during stressful moments and see the wider picture.
To contextualise my stress, and find ways to manage it.
Or, during particularly difficult moments, to stave off panic in the knowledge that my brain won’t allow me to access calming thoughts now – but it will later.
As a millennial, I have many friends who have spoken about needing help, but haven’t known where to go for it.
Or, worse, have felt that no help at all is better than a demoralisingly long waiting list.
And we know this picture is repeated all around the country.
That can’t go on.
At UKCP, we take care not to privilege any single group of people experiencing mental health issues.
That’s because we know these challenges can affect any person at any given time, and that our fantastic psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic counsellors serve a hugely diverse range of clients.
Nevertheless, it is still important to consider structural factors that make certain groups of people more likely to experience mental health issues.
And there is a growing body evidence that shows the ‘millennial’ generation have a particular susceptibility.
Despite the media’s fondness for deriding millennials, people born after 1980 face a different set of challenges from their forebears – in areas like housing and employment, not to mention the complications created by social media.
All of these can contribute to stress.
A report last month by the Resolution Foundation found that a third of British millennials will never own their own home, and that half will still be renting into their 40s. In a culture where home ownership is so widely prioritised, we should not underestimate the stress impact on millennials of this gloomy prognosis.
It is also important to consider the quality of housing available to hard-pressed young people. We know that good housing is crucial for good mental health and, with rent spiralling upwards in many parts of the country, some millennials have little choice but to settle for sub-par accommodation.
These are just some of the reasons why the Government needs to better support and incentivise the creation of genuinely affordable, good quality housing.
And we will be calling for this as part of our efforts to ensure that mental health is always a part of the policy conversation.
Another area that distinguishes the experiences of millennials is the labour market.
Last year, the IPPR published a comprehensive report looking at the effect of workplace pressures –particularly the shift towards greater contractual flexibility – on millennial mental health.
It found that, compared to previous generations, millennials are more likely to be in insecure work, to be overqualified for their position, and to be working fewer hours than they would like.
The related impact on mental health is stark. The IPPR found that workers aged 18-29 are twice as likely to describe their current mental health as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ as those aged 50-59. Graduates who are over-qualified for their position are 38% more likely to report being anxious or depressed. And those on zero-hour contracts are 13% more likely to experience mental health issues.
The IPPR’s excellent report illustrates the realities of workplace stress for millennials, and how that ties in with mental health. The figures should alarm us all.
The Government will often point to the relatively low rate unemployment as proof that their industrial strategy is working. However, it is clear that this has come at a cost of squeezed wages and widespread job insecurity. If we want to negate the effects of work-related stress on our young people, we desperately need the Government to show that they are prioritising mental wellness – not just the unemployment numbers.
Part of the solution to these challenges is ensuring mental health is always on the policymakers’ table. The creation of a cabinet post for the Minister responsible for mental health would be a start; so would Government backing for Luciana Berger MP’s ‘Health in All Policies Bill’, which has already received cross-party support.
And at UKCP, my role is to try and bring the Government’s attention to the mental health consequences of all policy matters.
The other part of the solution is, in my view, obvious. There needs to be far greater access to mental health services, especially talking therapies.
This would benefit every age group, but we know it would particularly benefit young adults, adolescents and children – ‘millennials’ and ‘centennials’, if you will.
I know from experience that this is true. Psychotherapy has helped me to feel ready to face life’s challenges, and I know it could do the same for millions of others. And we know that the sooner intervention happens, the better the outcome.
So, yes we must continue to raise awareness of and destigmatise mental health issues. And to encourage young people to seek help when they feel they need it.
But we must also do everything possible to ensure that high quality services are available when people do seek help.
And that, across all Government departments, policies are designed to alleviate mental health issues, not to exacerbate them.
I hope, for my part, I can help make a difference.