On Wednesday a petition was presented at Downing Street containing the signatures of key figures including Jo Brand, Stephen Fry and Tracy Emin, calling on the government, NHS and medical research institutions for mental health to be a research priority. Whilst 1 in 4 of us will be affected in some way by mental health issues, it currently receives just 5% of the budget for health research.
This is in part down to the stigma attached to mental health yet, the petition organisers point out, it has profound costs not only for those individuals affected, but for wider society and the economy as a whole – to a tune of £100 billion a year according to yesterday morning’s Today Programme on Radio 4.
Radio 4 were clearly interested in this petition, and the Today programme devoted some considerable time to it. Tom Feilden, the Science Correspondent, was very interested in the emphasis that was being made on the link between mental health and physical disease. Those who suffer from mental health issues are likely to suffer more adversely and recover more slowly from a range of physical problems, including migraine, heart disease, diabetes and asthma. But also the root of many physiological diseases lies in mental health.
So whilst lung cancer is caused by bodily responses to environmental toxins introduced to the lungs in the form of cigarette smoke, the addiction to smoking in the first place lies in the brain – both in the neurological make up of that brain, but also fundamentally in terms of the psychological basis of why that person is smoking in the first place and the circumstances which mean they fail to give up.
The whole thing seemed to quite excite the Radio 4 team, and I am very pleased about that. As an individual whose life has been touched by mental health issues in more ways than one, I can only praise any efforts to raise awareness and increase funding for research, treatment and ultimately prevention.
What surprised me however was that they were presenting this as a brand new and groundbreaking idea, whilst as a social scientist I know a lot of this research is already going on. It is being funded not by medical research councils, but as part of the work of sociologists, geographers and other social scientists.
For years we have been saying that physical illness is as much about the emotional and psychological environments people find themselves in, as it is about the biological processes that go on in the cells of the body to manifest disease.
There is already a basis of knowledge and understanding which could be drawn upon to complement the very valuable ‘medical research’ that this group are petitioning for. A starting point might be Tony Gatrell’s and Susan Elliott’s ‘Geographies of Health’, or Alison Williams’ ‘Therapeutic Landscapes’. Or there are a host of shorter articles focused on more specific contexts of how the mind is linked with physical health experiences and outcomes (try my staff page for a few!).
A lot of this existing research and understanding feeds into the new Open University course we are designing ‘Adult Health, Social Care and Wellbeing’ – which this blog is a part of.
So keep reading and keep yourself at the forefront of exciting and innovative thinking about health and wellbeing in context!