The tortoise, the hare, and the elephant in the room
To fix a crisis, you have to understand it.
If you haven’t heard of new media outlet Tortoise, this is how they describe themselves:
What’s different about us is slow news. We don’t do breaking news, but what’s driving the news. We don’t cover every story, but reveal a few. We take the time to see the fuller picture, to make sense of the forces shaping our future, to investigate what’s unseen.
Last night I went to my first ever Tortoise Think-In - I was invited to attend as I’d expressed interest in their new Tortoise Network initiative. The topic was “From wellbeing to crisis point: how can we start to fix the mental health crisis?”
Digging into the forces and trends underneath our society’s growing struggle with poor mental health? Sign me up!
There was a great turnout, a very impressive set of high-profile participants, and I agreed with everything that everyone said.
So why did I end up massively frustrated?
All praise to the Tortoise team, don’t get me wrong. They hosted a professional and interesting discussion, in a stylish venue, with heavyweight experts and contributors. There was Stevie Spring (chair of Mind), Luciana Berger MP, Jonny Benjamin, and more. But it didn’t ‘make sense of the forces shaping our future’ or ‘investigate what’s unseen’. We didn’t ‘start to fix the mental health crisis’.
Instead, we talked about poorly-funded services, the shortage of acute care resources, and the grassroots efforts by charities and within corporates to address chronically poor wellbeing.
We heard several deeply personal and affecting stories about the impact that poor mental health has had on nearly everyone in the room.
It was all heartfelt, moving and illuminating discussion, and like I said above, I agreed with it all.
But was it analysis?
It was testimonial, it was lived experience. It was genuine and emotional. But it described the mental health crisis, without explaining it.
It was all about effect, not cause. Symptom, after symptom, after symptom.
And it was all a little too familiar.
Déjà vu all over again
I’ve worked in students’ unions for over a decade, and was responsible for Imperial College Union’s advice, wellbeing, welfare and educational representation functions from 2012 to 2018.
As I sat in the Tortoise newsroom I was transported back in time, to welfare committee meetings within Imperial College London. Every few weeks, the heads of each student support service — counselling, disability advisory, residences, international student support, etc — would gather.
Each attendee would describe how their service was seeing increasing numbers, how they were being stretched, and how they would simply have to have more funding for next year. When each person was done, the next would give their version of the same report. And so on, and on.
For three hours.
Everyone would nod in solemn solidarity about how important good support services are, and how they are struggling to cope with demand. Heads were shaken, backs were patted. Then back to our various offices we went.
A few weeks later, we’d do it all again.
“How about we put on a puppy room?”
I dreaded these meetings. When I changed job, I advised my successor to not bother with them unless they changed radically. My efforts in the meetings to get people to discuss the causes of the increase in demand, rather than the consequences of it, had failed every time.
Back in 2019, in the Tortoise newsroom, it was happening again.
Gather round the fire, children
I believe that there’s one underlying reason that both the Tortoise Think-In and the Welfare Committee discussions quickly devolved into an exchange of personal experiences and poor services: everyone loves a good story.
If you fill a room with social workers, mental health campaigners, medical professionals, volunteers and people living with mental health challenges, you instantly have a tight-knit community bound together by their shared experience of just how crap things can be.
To bond, to demonstrate their knowledge, bluntly even to just feel involved, people share stories. Like old soldiers with their go-to anecdotes, every single person in the Tortoise newsroom (myself included) had a well-practised story or three in our back pocket about someone who had been failed by the system. Tales with all the necessary ingredients: villains, heroes, drama, surprise, danger, and often a tragic, cliffhanger, or bathetic resolution.
We gather, we tell our stories, we earn our place in the Mental Health, It’s a Crisis! community, we feel the warmth of being with people like us, and then we go back to the coal face, buckets and spoons in hand against the tsunami of human suffering.
OK, I’ve made my point. Discussing symptoms rather than causes is deeply frustrating. But there’s another, more fundamental problem here, that needs to be named, discussed and tackled head on.
My deep frustration at the discussion reverting to symptoms and stories isn’t just because it’s repetitive and unlikely to unearth any new insights.
It’s because these stories
reinforce a hidden frame that’s preventing us actually understanding what is happening to the mental health of our society.
That frame: that mental health is an individual struggle, not a structural failing. That individuals must learn new ways to cope and thrive. Mindfulness! Wellbeing! A healthy diet, fresh air, self-talk, positive thinking, time in nature, digital detox, avocado smoothies and ginger shots.
Distil those messages down, right down, and in their most basic form, that advice might as well be: just… be better at life. You’re not doing it right. Try again. Try harder. Not working? Then you’re not trying hard enough.
How many woodland walks do I need to take to change the political economy of this country? How often do I need to meditate until everyone has equal opportunity to education and employment? Will ginger shots help my generation reach some kind of metaphysical consensus of how to live a good life?
Self-care is hugely important, and it plays an underappreciated role in personal health. But it dominates the mental health discussion in a way that wildly overstates its reach. It individualises a problem that simply isn’t the fault of individual people and their choices.
The self-care narrative is simple, emotionally powerful, and dangerous. It’s cure, disguised as prevention. It sucks attention away from the difficult questions. With the role of the individual as its founding principle, it throws responsibility and blame in all the wrong places, and shrouds the real roots of the mental health crisis in darkness.
The mental health crisis is structural. It is society-wide. Every demographic — class, geography, age, ethnicity, sexuality and more — is affected. Rates of mental illness incidence and diagnosis are increasing.
I don’t know.
It’s not because mental health services are overstretched. That’s a symptom, not a cause.
It’s not (solely) because of government decisions or processes. Complex benefit forms aren’t giving pre-teen children eating disorders. Even then, governments are reflections of society in some way.
It isn’t (solely) because of social media. Social media might be one driver, or a channel for pre-existing tensions and fears. Again, that’s a symptom, not a cause.
It isn’t (solely) because of the economy. In my experience, when an organisation blames the economy for mental illness, they’re seeking a reason to not examine their own behaviour.
What could it be? The speed of communication? The change in family dynamics? The retreat of religion? Capitalism? Socialism? Brutalism? I don’t know. As far as I can tell, no one does.
None of these above trends are due to individual choice. Barring an extreme hermit-style approach, you can’t opt out of society. You can’t take a wellness break from the economy. You can’t isolate yourself, psychologically or physically, from modern life. That’s like asking someone to pause time, or ignore gravity.
But that’s what the self-care narrative demands. It’s societal sleight-of-hand, the result of the comfort we feel in hearing well-known stories rather than trying to explain the unknown in a brand new fashion.
We need a new narrative.
challenge to Tortoise: Write the definitive story of why there’s a mental health crisis.
Give charities, campaigners, experts and politicians a story they can understand. Separate effect from cause and interrogate the roots of this crisis that poses such a threat to our society.
Don’t describe what’s happening in our hospitals. Tell us what’s happening in the long now. Find out why we’re having this conversation in 2019, not 1719 or 2319.
Tortoise’s mission is to see the fuller picture, make sense of the forces shaping our future, and investigate what’s unseen.
That’s an ambitious aim. Let this be your test.