A Tsumami is coming – a Mental Health Warning.

At the recent TEDXSherborne, it was sobering listening to the experience of a father talking at about the effects of depression and mental illness upon, first, his son, and then his family. The illness had started with his son’s anxiety about examinations and, without early intervention and the necessary expert help, soon deteriorated into severe depression before affecting other family members who began to suffer mental health issues of their own.

Andrew Grundell spoke bravely of the pain his family had been through and argued that things needed to change to avoid a ‘mental health tsunami’ – one that would overwhelm individuals, families and communities. His response was a call to action: early intervention, making use of the deep lived experience of families, better funding to speed up the process of referrals, access to specialist professionals and placing the patient at the centre.

It was tough to listen to, but so much tougher to live the experience and hard to avoid asking why, why this has happened? What has brought us to this point that mental health at epidemic proportions? What are we doing that has led to 1 in 4 suffering a mental health issue? More worrying, what is happening to our young: 50% of all mental health issues are established by the age of fourteen years with suicide is the biggest cause of death for those aged between 5 – 19 years. What are we doing to protect them during these most vulnerable years?

The very next morning, the Chair of the Exams regulator, Ofqual, was in the news stating that examination stress is the result of students being more “mentally fragile” and that stress was not the result of high-stakes exams. It was hardly cognizant of a landscape in which examinations now have a range of stakeholders: Teachers, HODs, Schools, parents as well as the students themselves, and that the drip down pressure of expectation and accountability this has generated has been hugely deleterious. We have to acknowledge that dealing with mental health issues by providing the changes that Andrew is asking for is crucial, but also important, I would suggest, that we take our heads out of the sand and look at the causesof anxiety in these most vulnerable years so as to prevent it getting a foothold: the language we use; the way we dump the detritus of modern life on young with no acknowledgement of their emotional and intellectual readiness; the way we sell education as being about winners and losers by our ‘one way for all’ approach; the pressure of exams and of self-image, fueled by social media; the effect of unstable home life, poor role models, poverty and the effects of marginalisation through race, faith or gender.

Well-being is the new buzz word in schools although the term itself has been about for some time now. Attempting to build self-confidence in children by talking about self, however, is not without risk as self-analysis can also lead to the early signs of anxiety and marginalisation. We are making children grow up too quickly and the results are plain to see.

An approach or course of treatment that works for one person might not work for another. Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman argues that we should stop treating depression as an illness to be fixed with pills. Last year, one in six people in England between the ages of 18 and 64 was prescribed antidepressants. Instead, we should employ other approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy, and look at other ways of changing our personal space or environment, that having a dog is better for your mental health than Prozac and that nothing changes if we don’t change our thinking or behaviour. Whether it be cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling, other interventions or medication, the key is early intervention and access to professional help be available when anxiety becomes apparent

Even before that point, we can do more to help our children by changing their environment and their mindset, addressing the conditions in which anxiety is allowed to grow. Connecting with the environment, for instance, is one age-old way to ease anxiety and release tension. Not only does a walk in the countryside allow time to pause, observe and reflect on the wonders of the natural world, but it also gives time to focus on the more important things in life, family, friends and communities. With the pace of life as it is, old fashioned hobbies or interests may not have the same appeal they once had, but the idea of engaging with nature in some capacity or another, whether it be in rewilding, conservation, or even bird-watching is gaining currency. We should not underestimate the links between our physical and mental health and the world as we imagine it, and the natural world in which we live.

To stop the threatened tsunami of mental health will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders. Already, we know there is an urgent need to improve our mental health system through better funding, early intervention, getting rid of the stigma that is associated with mental health and how to get more specialist help. But as well, we need to work harder at identifying the causes of mental illness and, whereever we can, pre-empt them.