Why This Government’s Stance On Mental Health Is Nothing More Than Tokenism

Have You Got A Mental Health Issue….Or Is It Your Lifestyle?

Doubtless the Whitehall apparatchiks thought themselves terribly clever when they sold the Prime Minister the notion that using World Mental Health Day to launch the Government’s new mental health would be a brilliant PR coup.

Enter Jackie Doyle-Price, stage political right. A junior minister within the Department of Health, Mrs Doyle-Price is probably more celebrated for her apparently bottomless supply of hairstyles than for any great political achievement in her 8-year Parliamentary career to date.

Yet this week she finds herself paraded before the world as the UK’s dazzling solution to the problem of suicide. Sadly, though, our very first Minister for Suicide Prevention is unlikely to be the last participant in a very grand tradition of political tokenism and bureaucratic grandstanding.

Perhaps the sharpness of Mrs Doyle-Price’s haircuts is matched by her political acumen. She may be terribly good company at dinner parties, a raconteur of some repute over an amuse bouche or two, a selfless benefactor of good causes and a lover of defenceless animals.

What she most assuredly isn’t is the answer to the problem of suicide in your village, town or city.

I have found, over the years, that the sheer scale of the mental health crisis not just here, but across the world, is simply unquantifiable. No adjective yet exists to adequately describe the size of the problem this country faces in its ongoing provision of social and mental care. Choose any word you like – gargantuan, monstrous, enormous, huge, humongous, massive, colossal – and you’ll find it is a mere David to the Goliath that rains continuous blows upon a failing NHS system.

Equally indescribable is the amount of cold hard cash it will take to make even the smallest of dents in that problem.

The total Government annual spend is currently estimated at around £800bn (£772bn, if you want to be slightly more accurate). In the context of the true cost of treating mental health in the UK – as opposed to what the Government currently spends on it – that figure is chickenfeed.

To put it into some context, only a week or so ago the Health Secretary Matt Hancock was all over the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, like a well-cut but somewhat cheap overcoat, shouting about £20bn of new investment for the NHS. Money which, by the way, he intends to spend updating the service’s computers and reducing wait times for appointments.

So, when a junior Government minister is suddenly wheeled, wild-eyed and sporting a new haircut, into the limelight as the answer to all our prayers on suicide, you’ll forgive me when I ask just what Coco and his big-shoed friends in the dusty offices of Whitehall think the scale of the problem actually is.

Because if £20bn only allows one computer to talk to another, it doesn’t take membership of MENSA to work out that we’ll need a boatload more cash than that to even scratch the surface of the mental health issues that cause desperate people to take their own lives.

But I can hear you already. Oh Zoe, you’re saying, don’t be so negative! At least the Government has taken a positive step in the right direction.

Well yes, but only if the limit of one’s ambition stretches only as far as accepting that anything is better than nothing.

And by the way, just how positive is the appointment of a Minister for the Prevention of Suicide, anyway? No one will argue the fact that even one suicide is a tragedy, never mind more – and least of all me. But the fact is that 4,500 people committed suicide last year – and the rate actually falling.

So, it’s tempting, if possibly unfair, to conclude today’s news is a cynical attempt to make hay in the sunshine of World Mental Health Day and invest not very much in fighting a battle that statistics suggest is already being managed.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need to tackle the issue or that we should ignore the underlying causes – and in fact, this article argues for greater Government investment in that endeavour rather than less. But if you want only to further reduce the number of deaths by suicide, give the money to the Samaritans.

Jackie Doyle-Price was paid the thick end of £76,000 last year. The Samaritans could do quite a lot with that sort of money, I’d imagine.

More interesting, perhaps, is the question of why the Government has targeted the suicide rate specifically. It seems so incongruously arbitrary.  Why not a Minister for the Prevention of Alzheimers Disease (850,000 UK sufferers), or depression (6 million), or anxiety (3 million), or eating disorders (1.6 million) or any number of other, serious mental health issues that affect huge tranches of the population on a daily basis?

Surely the Government is missing the point here and ignoring the apparently obvious fact that something has gone terribly wrong long before someone decides to end their own life. If we’re going to prevent someone’s suicide, surely to goodness we need to be intervening much earlier in that individual’s mental decline, don’t we?

We need to raise awareness of the issues that sit behind the needless end of a life: generations of stepped down trauma, childhood trauma and other hidden triggers that lead to mental health issues, anxiety, depression and addiction from which suicide eventually seems the only escape.

Which brings us back to the tricky subject of money. The reality is that this Government and its predecessors of various colours have been either unwilling or unable to invest the necessary cash to support intervention where it’s needed – on trauma awareness, rapid support and ongoing treatment. So, and as usual, it focuses on a sticking plaster solution.

Whichever way you look at it, one can’t help but feel this appointment has come in the backwash of a passing bandwagon, a sop to ease the growing clamour for a plan – any plan – to deal with the mounting social care crisis. Something sporting an interesting haircut and which a beleaguered Government can point to and say, look, we’re really doing something about mental health.

When really it’s doing anything at all.

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently quoted a figure of ‘£40bn and counting’ when asked the cost to date of Britain’s painfully drawn-out exit from Europe. Compare that figure to the £215m investment in school mental health support which Theresa May announced this time last year. The Government spent four times that amount just on libraries last year, for pity’s sake!

Are we really to believe that the Jackie Doyle-Price represents an administration which is serious about arresting the parlous decline of mental health in this country? Or should we succumb to the nagging suspicion that her unveiling is redolent of a government which lacks both wit and wisdom and is busy pulling up a chair in the fast-emptying Last Chance Saloon?

There is no easy solution to the mental health crisis and those answers that may be options come at an eyewatering price. We should all be thankful for the myriad free services that do their best to meet growing demand for mental health services. It’s invidious to name some and not others, but whether for addiction, PTSD, trauma, depression, anxiety, the volunteer-led recovery and support programmes that are there to catch people when they fall do more every day to address the issues than a Minister for Suicide Prevention can ever hope to achieve in a lifetime.

And if you’ve made the mistake of interpreting this as a denouncement of Jackie Doyle-Price’s integrity as a politician, it’s absolutely not. The chalice from which she has been encouraged to drink is unquestionably poisoned, but there is no reason to question her intentions.

What is in question is the integrity of a Government that plays fast and loose with such an emotionally raw subject as suicide by stooping to grubby PR stunts with no hope or intention of matching its words with the budget required to be true to them.


The Inconvenient Truth About Quick Fire Therapy

Squashed Food Cheeseburger

Walk into any of the big three fast food restaurants these days and the chances are the emphasis will be on getting you in and out as quickly as possible.

The technology is designed to allow you to order your food, pay for it and then collect it from a collection point when it’s ready.

In possibly the only instance where it was actually ahead of the curve when it came to retail trends, this ‘convenience’ approach to buying was originally pioneered by catalogue store Argos.

On the surface, this ‘hit and run’ approach is a good thing when it comes to the fast food industry because in principle – and the words in principle are the kicker here – it serves both ends of the sale process: you want your food quickly, the restaurant wants to move you on so it can sell its tasty burgers someone else.

And in principle, that should work regardless of what is being traded. A cheap and cheerful piece of furniture from a catalogue, a dress in M&S or trauma therapy from your hypnotherapist.

Except, we’re talking about principle rather than reality and reality and principle are a long way from being the same thing. Especially when it comes to how you treat and manage mental health.

How often, for example, have you walked into a Kentucky Fried McBurger King and your food turns out at best lukewarm and at worst downright cold? Why is that? The answer’s pretty simple: on average Kentucky Fried McBurger King has worked out it sells a certain amount of Tower King MacWhoppers every hour and so, to speed up the process of selling them to you – and to ensure you get your meal as fast as possible so the next person in line gets their Tower King MacWhopper as fast as possible – the food is cooked not to order but to an artificial expectation of what the next person in line is likely to order.

The result? Lots of people get what they ordered at the right temperature, many people get what they ordered at the wrong temperature and some people get something they never ordered in the first place.

Now apply those principles to the world of hypnotherapy and what you get are too many hypontherapists who make it their business to offer a quick fix to whatever ails you.

These are the people who completely dismiss regression therapy as slow and old-fashioned, requiring unnecessary time and – they would argue – heartache in unpicking the past to identify what’s causing the problem today.

It’s the equivalent of walking into a restaurant and having the wine waiter thrust a bottle of Blue Nun at you with the words: “You’ll like this. Everyone does.”

Regression therapy was the first thing I was trained in and many years and many clients later I’m even more convinced than ever that it’s simply impossible to treat complex, multi-layered issues such as abandonment trauma, narcissistic wounding, abuse, neglect, repetition compulsion and severe and complex trauma without first acknowledging the past and the impact it has on the psyche. 

At their very best, superficial techniques will only ever paper over the psychological cracks. Beyond the critical issue of whether the patient or client receives the treatment they actually need, there’s also a question of ethics here.

We live in a world where everyone wants a quick fix to everything and so when someone claims they can heal you in one session, the temptation to sign up immediately is enormous. But I think we have a duty of care that requires us to be brutally honest.

Masking symptoms is not the same as curing or healing and if you want to be a good hypnotherapist with a career that has longevity, you’re going to need to properly learn how to navigate a client through the shark-infested emotional waters of severe and complex trauma.

There is – and always has been – a slew of superficial techniques that are peddled by those looking to make a quick return. It’s the therapy equivalent of a gastric bypass. And for mild conditions and issues like nail biting, mild to moderate phobias and some anxieties, they can be fantastic.

Complex trauma is different.

It’s common to see clients who haven’t acknowledged the underlying trauma which is manifesting as the issue. But it’s the therapist’s job and responsibility to guide them to understand why the issue has manifested as it is.

People are great apologists for how they feel – “Yeah, but there are people out there with much worse childhoods than mine” – but this is a coping mechanism that helps them to avoid acknowledging their own emotions. As therapists we’re there to help them to recognise and deal with their own pain, which is the only route to good mental health. What other people experience is more irrelevant than they could possibly imagine.

By unlocking the emotions that are locked into us at the time of the event, we are able to then deal with their presenting issue.

But if the hypnotherapist involved is uncomfortable talking about the past or sees it as an unnecessary or dirty process, that release simply can’t happen. Worse, it’s tantamount to colluding with the patient in minimising and denying the past and helping to unconsciously reinforce the sense of shame they feel.

That in turn leads to further compartmentalisation – which ultimately is what the client is already presenting with. The result? The client feels temporarily better, but the real issue goes unacknowledged, untreated and, at worst, becomes further entrenched. 

It might be inconvenient to you to have a client who finds it difficult talking about painful things, but the answer is to give them time and build trust. The current, worrying trend of promising to resolve all trauma, regardless of severity, in one session isn’t just a joke, it’s a dangerous and irresponsible joke. 

If you’re in any doubt as to just how insidious this disingenuity has become, how about this: the other day I saw a practice advertising its services with the line Come and have therapy – it’s FUN!

There are great many things in this big wide world of ours that are undoubtedly fun, but whilst therapy doesn’t have to be unpleasant, it certainly isn’t one of them.

Here’s the thing. If you offer therapy-lite sessions, your results will also be lite. Plain and simple. It doesn’t work any other way.

I’ve lost track of the number of therapists boasting on online forums about resolving major trauma issues only to admit, when questioned further, that they had only just finished the first session. The poor client probably hadn’t even got back to their car before their therapist was jumping online to share the ‘good’ news.

The goal for any therapist shouldn’t be speed or the creation of great marketing material, it should be thoroughness. To know the job has been done properly and with the client’s best interests at heart. It should be about a process that’s owned not by the hypnotherapist but by the client. That’s not the stuff of one-session fixes.

I’m bored by hypnotherapists who make it their business to pour scorn on talking therapy and make out their speed-dating equivalent is the only way forward. I’m bored by hypnotherapists who have done a 2-week course and think they’ve earned the right to trash-talk psychotherapy and other really solid therapies when all they really seem to be qualified in is supreme ignorance.

Everywhere I look it’s about speed and an aversion to exploring the past. These people don’t seem to recognise that the subconscious has no concept of time.

Quick hypnosis has its place, but no client I’ve had in 15 years has been concerned about how quickly they are hypnotised. Yet now it’s become a unique and questionable selling point for therapists and some course providers.

Guess what? Regression really works. Inner child work really works. They’re game-changers in a game a lot of the players don’t seem to have the right equipment to play.

Is regression therapy everything?  No, absolutely not – just as the Tower King MacBurger isn’t the only burger. But being prepared to spend the time needed to choose the right therapy will always be the difference between success and failure.

Healing is messy and uncomfortable, which means therapy is messy and uncomfortable and recovery from trauma and addiction is definitely messy and uncomfortable – until it isn’t. Then comes relief and true freedom.

But if you’re uncomfortable dealing with a client’s emotions or hearing about traumatic events, or you get freaked out when a client breaks down and grieves, or you don’t have the time to provide the right care then the chances are that some day, somewhere, someone is going to choke on the Tower King MacBurger you just served them.


Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.