If you’re someone who gets their daily news fix from BBC News Online you could be forgiven for thinking that people like me spent the whole of the pandemic making a mountain out of a mental health molehill.
Apparently, according to the BBC news feed this week, all that time I spent jumping up and down between March 2020 and … well, now, really … calling on the Government to take seriously the impact of its lockdown on mental health and invest more in the provision of desperately needed acute and counselling services was all just wasted breath.
Because, you see, according to the BBC the real impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health was minimal.
Quoting a British Medical Journal study, the BBC story – running under the irritatingly clickbait-y and, I might suggest, monumentally lazy headline ‘Mental-health crisis from Covid pandemic was minimal – study’ – claims researchers found ‘changes in general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depression symptoms have been minimal to small’.
Now, let’s face it, in the backwash of the last few days and the spectacular display of reputational self-harm that was the Gary Lineker twitterstorm row, we’re not exactly dealing with an organisation basking in the glory of unquestionable judgement, are we?
Nevertheless, the BBC is seen by a significant section of the British population as the last word in fair, impartial and responsible newsgathering and reporting, so it’s fair to assume that a not inconsiderable proportion might have read that story, thought ‘well, that’s okay then’, and promptly given the matter not another thought.
To say that would be unfortunate would be an understatement. Because, you see, short of reporting unchallenged the mutterings of a man in the chip shop who claims Elvis Presley is still alive and living in his spare bedroom, this BBC report is about as unbalanced as it’s possible to get.
More to the point, it’s fundamentally misleading.
Because for anyone who cares to look beyond the simplistic headline of the UK’s supposedly definitive news provider, the truth is the pandemic has left far more people in the grip of a mental health crisis than was the case before we’d ever heard of Wuhan or Coronavirus.
And frankly, that’s saying something, because the mental health crisis in the years before the pandemic was pretty f—ing serious to begin with.
And, well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I’ve been a very vocal and unapologetic critic of this government and its damaging health policies since the day the floppy-haired twit in the clown shoes stood behind a lectern in 10 Downing Street and told us all to stay at home for 12 months, before he pissed off to attend a staff party in his garden.
But let’s put aside, for a moment, my seething intolerance of the current party of government and its Covid strategy and instead focus on facts (which might also have made a good starting point for the Beeb’s health reporter Philippa Roxby, who wrote this particular news item).
I won’t do a long build up to the most damning fact of all, because it deserves to be front and centre.
The ‘study’ on which the BBC item is based is a British Medical Journal (BMJ) review of 137 separate studies into the effects of Covid, headlined: Comparison of mental health symptoms before and during the covid-19 pandemic: evidence from a systematic review and meta-analysis of 134 cohorts
Two things to note here:
First, that review was published by the BMJ on March 8 this year. Tellingly, as I write this article five days later – and as you will have discovered if you’ve clicked the link and tried to access the detailed document – that review is no longer available to read.
Second, the publication of the review drew a measured yet scathing response from an eminent academic and mental health specialist at Southampton University who picks enough holes in the premise of the review to sink a battleship.
My own simplistic response to the BBC report was How the hell would you know what the impact on mental health has been? How would anyone know?
The academic – Samuel Woodnutt, a Principal Teaching Fellow the university’s Mental Health Education Lead – makes a far better job of summarising all my reasons and more for disbelieving the findings.
He points to the disinclination of people to seek medical advice for a mental health problem, not unreasonably observing that the pandemic may have (perhaps almost certainly did) prompt feelings of depression in those who had not felt depressed before lockdown.
This is a not unreasonable conclusion when you consider statistics gathered by the mental health charity Mind suggest that 36 per cent of the entire UK population will experience some sort of undiagnosed debilitating mental health episode at some point in their life – that’s somewhere in the region of 27.8 million people, or three and a half times the population of London.
The key word here is undiagnosed. As Woodnutt notes in his response to the BMJ, undiagnosed medical conditions are of little use to statisticians and of even less use or interest to medical researchers.
In other words, those undiagnosed cases never make it into medical and academic research studies such as the ones we’re discussing here. From a purely statistical and academic perspective, they simply don’t count.
And that’s fine when you put context around it. Unfortunately, context is something sorely missing from the BBC report, the phrasing of which appears to serve the creation of a sensationalist headline rather than any public appreciation of the mental health crisis many are currently living through.
But the fact undiagnosed cases don’t count in research terms doesn’t mean those cases don’t exist in the real world.
Here’s another fact, one that surely demands further scrutiny. According to the BBC report, the 137 studies which contributed to the BMJ review were largely conducted among high income European and Asian countries with the Canadian research team observing that: ‘changes in general mental health, anxiety symptoms, and depression symptoms have been minimal to small’.
Well, you could knock me down with a feather! It required a bunch of researchers from one of the wealthiest nations on the globe to conclude that rich folk in rich countries didn’t really suffer so much with their mental health over a global lockdown?
No shit, Sherlock.
According to the UK government figures (and I quote these in full recognition of the irony of my taking anything quoted by the government as gospel) the most at-risk communities at risk of mental health issues are:
- children living at a socio-economic disadvantage
- children with parents who have mental health or substance misuse problems
- looked-after children
- adults with a history of violence of abuse
- people with poor physical health
- older people living in care homes
- isolated older people
- women who are pregnant or have a child aged under 12 months
I mean, I don’t want to stereotype here because mental health generally doesn’t discriminate – it can affect people equally, regardless of socio-economic factors; but looking at that list it’s hard to pick out more than one group (mums with children under a year old) that doesn’t typically fall squarely into the disadvantaged category.
We could have a long debate about the quality of journalism – or lack of it – that the BBC story betrays, not just in burying the counterargument from several sources deep into the narrative, but also in giving undue and undeserved weight to a group of studies that bear precious little social, economic, geographic, or financial diversity.
The quality of journalism is a big issue in terms of educating people about the monstrous mental health and social care challenges our country faces, because for every story like this that’s uploaded or printed in the public domain, we offer our law- and policymakers an excuse for sitting on their hands.
They can simply point to this narrative and others like it, shrug their shoulders, and ask: “Crisis? What crisis, guv?”
Here’s the real problem, the problem that health journalists like Philippa Roxby should be tackling.
It’s that the current cost of providing mental health services in the UK stands at around £105 billion – and it doesn’t even begin to meet demand.
It’s that an estimated 300,000 people lose their jobs every year because of long-term mental health issues and are cast into an abyss of financial pressure that pushes them to the edge.
It’s that an estimated 70-75 per cent of people with a diagnosable mental health condition receive no treatment at all.
It’s that globally, 15 people die every minute from an illness directly attributable to poor mental health. That’s 1 person every 4 seconds.
It’s that in the time it has taken you to read this article, 75 people have lost their lives to a treatable mental health illness.
So, instead of writing ‘news’ stories that claim there isn’t a problem with mental health from a pandemic that crippled so many people emotionally, maybe – just maybe – we should face up to the reality, start telling it like it is, and demand that our parliamentarians get off their well-tailored arses and do something about it.