On 29 September, the BBC reported on the newly released results of NHS digital’s latest National Health and Wellbeing Study. The data shows an alarming trend: Since the first study was conducted in 1993, young women aged 16 – 24 have become increasingly vulnerable to common mental health diseases, disproportionately to any other risk group in England.
Common mental diseases
The study shows that 19% of women of all ages had been diagnosed with one of the following: Anxiety, depression, panic disorder, phobia, or OCD. Additionally, young women also report high rates self-harm, bipolar disorders, and post-traumatic stress.
For those of us who associate post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) with images of war and natural disaster, the significant occurrence among young women could seem puzzling. In this study, the young women’s stories pointed to a range of traumatic experiences leading to PTS, from abuse at a young age, to exposure to drugs, and chaotic parenting, confirming the large body of data and research that illustrates the contextual and subjective nature of traumatic experiences.
Reports of the widespread occurrence of PTSD in the so-called First World might be difficult for general society to grasp. Skepticism regarding this condition’s prevalence is not a first, since the Chief Medical Officer who provided the M.O.D with the first report stating clear-cut evidence of the prevalence of PTSD in the military, had his report thrown out by government officials who didn’t believe that the condition existed.
The gender gap in mental health
1993: 19% of 16-to-24-year-old women surveyed reported symptoms of common mental disorders compared with 8% of men of the same age.
Now: In one week 26% of women aged 16-24 reported symptoms of common mental disorders in one week, compared to 9% of men in the same age group.
The exponential rise in mental illness in this age group over recent years, as well as the gender mismatch of almost three times, should ring alarm bells.
Why the difference between the genders? The backdrop against which these statistics are set is complex and multi-faceted. In approaching this question, we must acknowledge that women are more vulnerable to many forms of abuse, because of the comparable physical disadvantage as well as the remnants of thousands of years of patriarchal socialisation still at play in modern power structures. In the same breath, the gender gap must be viewed in conjunction with research studies that has shown men to be much less likely to seek help and report mental ill health, yet three times more like to commit suicide. England’s young women are suffering, but let us not forget our young men who suffer in silence.
The chasm between need and access to support
The statistics on the widespread occurrence of mental ill health among English youth should serve as a wake-up call for us all. The common impression that mental illness is a rare issue affecting but a few individuals is clearly faulty as can be seen from the statistics.
Another statistic that’s quite disheartening for those who provide services in the mental health field is that the percentage of people with anxiety or depression, who sought help, has only increased by 13% in the last nine years. What we need to be asking is this: Why are so many people not reaching out if there is actually help available? Why do almost two-thirds of people suffer in silence? I find this a heart-breaking statistic.
What is evident from case studies, such as those in a recent article in the Guardian on social care services, telling the stories of people who try to manage by themselves without reaching out, is the many obstacles in gaining access to mental health support services. People described a waiting period of up to 18 weeks before a therapist would become available. Because of the lack of services, people like these are more likely to be offered antidepressants and sent home to endure the black hole by themselves.
More and more research is showing that holistic wellbeing programs including elements such as therapy and exercise can be more effective for treating certain mental conditions than using prescription medication alone. Some London Boroughs are adapting their strategies accordingly by putting in place health champions who are available to the public by appointment, helping people to set out a wellbeing plan that includes therapy, lifestyle elements, and prescription medication.
Unfortunately the capacity is low, translating into only one health champion per 300,000 people in some areas. Roughly speaking, the national average for mental health in-patient beds per hundred thousand people is around twenty to twenty-two. Bearing in mind the need, this is direly insufficient. What it shows you about mental health and wellbeing success stories in the community is that the number of people who actually get helped is really but a drop in the ocean.
This is why Bridge believes in the importance of our practical services such as signposting services and online campaigns that educate those in need of the services available to them. If we can just reach out and let people know that they’re not alone, we’ve taken steps in the right direction.
Take the first step towards mental health recovery and wellbeing
It is well known that those setting off on a path of lifestyle changes are more likely to succeed in their goals if they join a support group or get together with a supportive companion, than when doing it alone. Bridge would like to join you on this journey. Please reach out to us and we’ll provide you support on an individual level with a strategy based on your needs.