The wonderful thing about language is how it’s always changing. That’s the scary thing about it, too.
Sometimes the changes are entirely innocent. If you saw the word ‘twitter’ a few decades ago you’d have pictured a sweet little bird sounding happy. Then some clever Silicon Valley types hijacked it and now a ‘tweet’ might be happy — or, more likely, pretty savage.
Either way it’s a useful illustration of how innocuous words can be captured, sometimes for commercial gain, but more often by campaigners for a particular cause.
‘Gay’ is the perfect example of that.
It’s more than fifty years since young homosexual men began to use it to describe themselves. Now it’s rare to hear ‘homosexual’ used in common parlance. ‘Gay’ has taken over. It has been a powerful weapon in the battle for sexual equality. Our society is the healthier for it.
But let’s try another phrase that’s been steadily creeping into common usage — a phrase that was almost never used when I was a youngster: mental health.
Go back only a few decades and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone using it outside the closed circle of medical professionals.
And when it was, it was almost whispered. As though there was something shameful about suffering from a mental health problem.
Now it is ubiquitous. Even schoolchildren use it. Or, should I say, especially schoolchildren.
JOHN HUMPHRYS: 'Sometimes the changes in language are entirely innocent. If you saw the word ‘twitter’ a few decades ago you’d have pictured a sweet little bird sounding happy. Then some clever Silicon Valley types hijacked it and now a ‘tweet’ might be happy — or, more likely, pretty savage.'
It is impossible to read or hear any interview with teenagers now about the effect of lockdowns on them — whether they’ve been at school or university — without either interviewer or teenager referring to the effect on their ‘mental health’.
And why not? Wasn’t it always ridiculous that we used to lower our voices and look the other way? As though it was something to be ashamed of.
Surely we should welcome the way everyone is talking now about their ‘mental health’. And when I say everyone I mean everyone.
From Prince William, who has just welcomed an unprecedented agreement by the emergency services to adopt a package of ‘mental health support’ for their staff, to the boss of one of Britain’s biggest digital banks.
He’s Mark Mullen, the chief executive of Atom Bank, and he’s just announced that his staff are being shifted to a four-day week to improve their ‘mental and physical wellbeing’.
This is more than just puzzling. It demonstrates why we really should worry about our new-found obsession with mental health.
Are we really saying that working a five-day week is harmful?
Speaking for myself, I’d hate to work in a bank for five days a year let alone five days a week, which is just as well because I’d be useless at it. In fact, I thoroughly dislike working in offices full stop.
But I’ve been lucky. The eccentric working pattern of a freelance journalist has always suited me very well.
But we all know people who thoroughly enjoy the rhythm of a five-day week. It gives them a structure to their lives. They look forward to the weekends but enjoy the company of their colleagues when they’re at work, too.
What happens to them in this brave new world when their bosses tell them they will have an extra day at home whether they like it or not? What if they find even a four-day week is too much for their mental health? Offer them three days maybe? Where does it end?
And anyway, what exactly do we mean when we talk about mental health?
Surely we should welcome the way everyone is talking now about their ‘mental health’. And when I say everyone I mean everyone. From Prince William, who has just welcomed an unprecedented agreement by the emergency services to adopt a package of ‘mental health support’ for their staff, to the boss of one of Britain’s biggest digital banks (pictured: Prince William speaks at the Royal Foundation's Emergency Services Mental Health Symposium in London on November 25, 2021)
This country has a dubious claim to fame when it comes to mental illness.
We were the first in Europe to open so-called ‘lunatic asylums’. That was 700 years ago.
It was not until the 1980s that we finally got around to closing them. It took a long time to abandon the inhuman practice of dividing people into two categories: those who are insane and the rest of us.
Thankfully, we now recognise that mental illness is a source of unhappiness or even great suffering. And we have started to apply a bit more discrimination in our approach to it.
We now distinguish between mental illnesses that have little in common with each other, be it depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Even so, we have been slow to shake off the notion that there are two categories of humans: those who are mentally ill and those who are not.
We have yet to come to terms with the notion that all of us are susceptible to mental illness in one form or another. Medical science has shown that our bodies and minds interact with each other. We know that there is such a thing as psychosomatic illness. It may manifest itself in physical form but its causes are often mental.
We realise too that just as the body can take only so much physical stress before something gives — the heart, our lungs, our limbs — so our minds can take only so much mental stress.
And we know that if we are subjected to too much anxiety or pressure from over-work we might suffer from what an earlier generation recognised as a ‘mental breakdown’.
JOHN HUMPRHYS: 'We realise that just as the body can take only so much physical stress before something gives — the heart, our lungs, our limbs — so our minds can take only so much mental stress. And we know that if we are subjected to too much anxiety or pressure from over-work we might suffer from what an earlier generation recognised as a mental breakdown.'
It happened once to my father when there was not enough money to put decent food on the table, but no-one talked about it. We looked the other way. He got better.
But is it really true that less work inevitably leads to improved mental health? Is a four-day week really better than five days?
I worry that there’s something more sinister going on here. Indeed, there are powerful vested interests who exploit the notion that we should all worry endlessly about our mental health.
I’m not talking about the growing army of therapists and counsellors. Some of them have had little or no training, but many vulnerable people need no more than a sympathetic ear. An experienced, trained therapist can often help those in greater need.
It’s Big Pharma we need to worry about.
Not all of it, of course. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to companies like AstraZeneca. Without their vaccines we’d still be counting our daily Covid dead in the thousands.
It’s those who peddle drugs knowing full well the effect they will have on their victims and caring not a jot about the massive harm they may be causing.
It’s medicalising a condition when it may or may not be clinically justified. It’s creating a market to treat ‘mental health issues’ in order to make money — vast amounts of money.
We may be only dimly aware of the opioid crisis in the United States but we should take it very seriously.
In the Nineties, American drug companies assured the medical world that opioid painkillers were not addictive. They were lying.
JOHN HUMPRHYS: 'Is it really true that less work inevitably leads to improved mental health? Is a four-day week really better than five days? I worry that there’s something more sinister going on here. Indeed, there are powerful vested interests who exploit the notion that we should all worry endlessly about our mental health.'
In 2019, 70,000 people died from overdosing. A breath-taking 10 million people ‘misused’ opioid prescription drugs.
Such drugs create dependency. Anyone who doubts that should read the compelling column Sarah Vine wrote in these pages just a few days ago.
She was responding to an announcement from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence issuing new guidelines to doctors who were considering prescribing anti-depressants.
They should, said NICE, consider alternative options such as therapy, meditation or exercise first.
Sarah is one of the many who was prescribed anti-depressants. She took them for nearly ten years — and they worked. But when she realised she had become dependent on them, she tried to break free. And that was when the real nightmare began.
Her hellish experience should be noted by all those who trot out that grotesquely overused expression ‘mental health issues’.
They should also note the staggering increase in the number of people being prescribed anti-depressants in England today. Well over seven million. More terrifying still, about a quarter of a million of them are children between the ages of five and 16.
Can it really be possible that life is so much more difficult for a child today than it was a generation ago? So difficult that the only answer is to embark on the nightmare journey that may lead to drugs dependency?
Surely the question answers itself.