UKCP Chief Executive Prof. Sarah Niblock has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Edge Hill University. Here's Sarah's acceptance speech in full.
Thank you, Professor Karkou, for your most generous introduction. I am very honoured to be receiving this recognition, but also very humbled to be in the presence of all of you today, given the incredible efforts you have taken to achieve your qualifications in spite of the pandemic. I also wish to pay tribute to the academics and professional staff at Edge Hill University for how hard you have had to work and adapt given how universities sit upon ever shifting tectonic plates of local and global policy.
I am going to start with someone else’s words to, I hope, provide some context to help you celebrate even harder:
'There are no accidents. And if there are, it's up to us to look at them as something else. And that bravery is what creates new flowers.'
No, that’s not Sigmund Freud, the original architect of what we commonly refer to as the ‘talking cure’. Those words were actually uttered by the late pop icon Prince, who shone so brightly as a musician but also as a leader until his untimely death in 2016.
His stoical statement speaks to the fact that we should see every obstacle as an opportunity which, just perhaps, the universe has put before us to teach us something. We must remember that Prince was a diminutive black man from a troubled background who overcame all manner of obstacles and prejudice to ascend to the global stage.
And he took the responsibility that platform afforded him to comment on matters of equity, social justice and what it is to be human. He taught us, by example, to the very best version of ourselves - no matter whether society does or doesn’t deem you ‘normal’.
It’s a message of resilience, of courage – trust the process even if it takes a while. Don’t waver from your self-belief and vision.
I lead an organisation where we don’t ask people experiencing anxiety or depression ‘what’s wrong with you?’. We ask, what’s happened to you and, most often, we tell you that you are having a perfectly normal and natural human reaction to those events or issues. You’re not ill, there’s nothing wrong with your brain. Most of us, not necessarily everyone, but the majority have the resources and life drive within us to thrive if only we can access them and that’s what talking therapies seek to support us in doing.
But I don’t blame you for sometimes wondering in these times. At first glance, the future of mental health can seem disheartening. Depression is currently THE most common mental disorder, with 300 million people affected globally.
The World Health Organisation expects that by 2030 depression will have become the largest single healthcare burden, costing $6 trillion globally. For perspective, that’s bigger than the GDP of China.
Yet so much about the future of mental health is bright. Thankfully, we are moving away from antiquated views of mental illness which blame people for how they feel.
The erosion of stigma means that people want to take a more active role in their own mental care. Mental health is no longer considered as merely the absence of mental illness, with more emphasis now placed on building psychological skills to help us rise to the inevitable challenges of life.
Hearteningly, our younger generations and innovative new professionals like yourselves are leading this charge.
And those of you here today are particularly well-placed, as graduands of medicine, social care, applied health and social work, to effect a much needed culture change that looks at mental health through a different lens, not always as an illness requiring medication but as a sign that something more fundamental might be at the root.
It undermines the welfare of our nation.
And it is also a challenge that affects our competitiveness as a country.
That places a huge strain on our public services.
And that costs our economy tens of billions of pounds a year.
Now, you would think a widespread and important challenge like this would be top of the political agenda.
That every leading politician would be obliged to address to it.
That we would be falling over each other, as we do, to prove that we had a solution.
Only in emergencies and at the extreme end of conditions do we tend to talk about the issue.
A change of culture has happened with illnesses that have previously been taboo: from cancer to aids to other sexually transmitted diseases.
But it hasn’t yet happened as much as it needs to with mental health.
We need to make a wider range of therapies available to people free at the point of use, especially through the NHS.
For those who are not able to pay for therapy privately, the lack of access to appropriate talking therapy through the NHS can be devastating.
And, in the wake of the pandemic, with many pressures on people’s health and cost of living, this problem only stands to get worse.
Mental ill-health is a cradle to grave problem with nothing like a cradle to grave service. It’s growing as a result of unequal societies, a long-hours culture, and from the erosion of social bonds.
So what’s this got to do with rock and roll, you ask? Well, I will tell you.
Our most important mission is to reconnect with what makes us human in the first place – let’s face it, that’s why a lot of you have been going to festivals after your finals.
At a time when we are being split and fragmented, when the values of competition, individualism, consumerism and public shaming are so much inscribed in our collective psyche, we need to remember what humans are actually all about.
Caring, compassionate, community-based, the most basic human need after food and shelter is actually love. I don’t mean romantic entanglements but basic attachment. Without that we whither on the vine.
Get those fundamental human values reinscribed and we can start to solve the big problems collectively like the mental health crisis as well as climate emergency, and so on.
These are social and relational issues requiring social and relational solutions.
You are change makers leaving university with the creativity, diversity and cutting-edge knowledge to challenge the orthodoxy and to innovate.
You have not only learnt from the very best academics and experts in the field, but you’ve also reflexively learnt from one another in ways that cut through disciplinary boundaries and get to the heart of social relationships.
Please hold onto that incredible acumen and keep it foremost in your minds whenever you feel challenged.
Most of all, listen to more Prince – everyone should do that. As he said, ‘A strong spirit transcends the rules’.
I wish you every success and happiness as you embark on your very bright and exciting futures.
Thank you for this great honour.