Why we should be deeply concerned by Boris Johnson’s toxic attitude to mental health
Is it just me or is there a distinct whiff of apocalypse in the air? Temperatures recently reached unprecedented highs, public transport smells like feet and resembles a furnace, there is absolutely no cold side to the pillow and Boris Johnson has been appointed Prime Minister.
During his campaign for PM, Johnson found time to write his column for The Telegraph suggesting that the UK can “improve mental health, save money and boost the economy all in one go”, all by, erm, working harder. In the article he cites Winston Churchill as an shining example, suggesting that it was Churchill’s astonishing work ethic, and not his alleged dependency on alcohol, that helped him cope with the Black Dog.
“It was with work that he pitchforked off his depression; and what was true for Churchill is basically true for all of us: that to a very large extent we derive our self-esteem from what we do,” wrote Johnson. “It is often from our jobs – from being engrossed in our daily tasks – that we get that all-important sense of satisfaction.”
Now, I don’t know about you lovely lot, but this dangerously over-simplistic view of mental health issues, its triggers and treatment brings up more red flags than that lad on Tinder who says all his exes are ‘psychos’. It is also indicative of an entrenched and pervasive stigma.
Mental health is not a one-size-fits-all narrative. What works for one person certainly does not work for another and I’m growing increasingly anxious – and angry – that the ‘work is the best medicine’ line is being pushed under the Tory government. For Johnson to suggest that remaining in the rat race is great “therapy” is far too simplistic, unfeeling and, quite frankly, bloody dangerous. It completely disregards mental illness and disorders and places a skewed view on our worth as human beings in a society which demands too much of its members and gives little back in return. Some Twitter users have even gone so far as to draw parallels between his ‘work sets you free’ rhetoric and propaganda used by Nazi Germany.
Numerous studies have been carried out to support the idea that work can reduce the risk of mental health issues, but we need to be extremely careful with how we choose to use these findings. Recently, sociologists at the universities of Cambridge and Salford conducted a study which found that the risk of mental health problems reduced by 30 per cent when people moved from unemployment or stay-at-home parenting into paid work of eight hours or less per week. However, the findings showed no evidence that working more than eight hours provided further boosts to mental health.
While I agree that meaningful, paid work can – and does – boost morale, Johnson’s comments make me feel uneasy. With people having to work greater hours for less money, and technology ensuring that we can always be reached by our employers, no wonder we are anxious, stressed and depressed. According to mental health charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and, in England, one in six people report a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. These figures don’t lie – something is clearly wrong and, in my opinion, our toxic relationship with work (unpaid overtime, taking work home, lack of sleep, eating at our desks, lack of exercise, hostile work environments) is a huge concern – and the biggest drain on our resources.
Mental health initiatives do seem to be creeping into the workplace, but I’m concerned (yet not surprised) that the focus is on the economic benefits to the employer rather than the individual. Business is disconnected from the workforce with many employees feeling replaceable, inadequate and fearful that their jobs are under threat if they make a mistake or deign to take time off.
While I’d usually look at anything written by the likes of Johnson, Morgan et al and roll my eyes, it’s becoming difficult to ignore now that one of these buffoons has landed the role of PM. Most concerning is Johnson’s insistence that Theresa May’s government has done great work to champion mental health. Now, I’ve personally tried to seek help for a mental health issue under a Conservative government and, honestly, I reckon I’ve got more chance of sprouting wings and flying away than accessing therapy on the NHS. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to access private counselling but this is not the norm across the country. Many people are left waiting on an endless list because budgets have been slashed.
During this period of my life, I couldn’t leave the house without having a panic attack or focus on anything for more than five minutes without feeling anxious. So, how was I supposed to work? How would that have benefited me? And yet I felt horrible pressure from my then employer to return to the office or leave, decisions I couldn’t fathom and which only added to my distress. It took months to feel anywhere near like my usual self and, even then, my reintroduction to work was gradual.
Work was certainly not my “therapy” (it still isn’t) and I am beyond appalled that this is the toxic yarn our ‘leader’ is choosing to spin.
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