This article was first published on 20 December 2019, in Holyrood magazine.
It’s 19 months since my friend Scott Hutchison died by suicide. A kind, funny, incredibly brilliant man, Scott’s death had a massive impact well beyond his mates. As singer of the band Frightened Rabbit, he’d long excavated the dark undertow of his battle with mental ill health in his lyrics. He was like a hurricane lamp, attracting what another band might call “the beaten, the broken and the damned” like moths, and providing light for people in the teeth of their own storms.
For my money, his band are the only ones to even come close to the Pogues’ crown as kings of the Christmas song. Like Fairytale of New York, It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop recognises that not everything is fixed by the liberal application of tinsel and turkey. Christmas can just as much be a time for loneliness, anxiety and depression.
The turning of the year is an invitation to compare ourselves to our aims and find ourselves wanting. Add in financial pressures; disrupted routines; family gatherings or lack of them; the liberal application of alcohol; and the cold, dark and rain, and it’s little wonder that almost a third of people with mental health problems feel unable to cope at Christmas. With one in three people in Scotland experiencing mental ill health every year, that’s a lot of people struggling. The expectation that everyone is jolly at this “most wonderful time of the year” only drives salt into wounds.
Scott was one of 784 people who died by suicide in Scotland in 2018. It was a significant increase on the 680 deaths by suicide in 2017.
In the wake of his death, a lot of well-meaning individuals called on people experiencing similar feelings of despair to reach out and speak to someone. It is the first step to getting help, they said. Up to a point, they were right – lives have been saved when those in crisis have called the Samaritans, visited their local A&E or spoken to a close friend or family member.
Stigma should not be a barrier to healthcare, so it was heartening to see these conversations happening. But as the same, simplistic message was pumped out again and again, my resentment grew. It wasn’t like Scott had stayed silent. There comes a point when the exhortation to “seek help” starts to look like a virtue signalling way to shift responsibility. The obligation for fixing the mental health crisis shouldn’t rest with people in the middle of some of the worst moments of their life.
I’ve experienced what it’s like to ask for help. It was frustrating, bordering on Kafkaesque. The system was plagued with dead ends, bureaucracy and paths that peter out just as I thought I was headed the right way. I’m university-educated, pretty tenacious, and am lucky enough to have very strong social support systems around me, but navigating NHS mental healthcare took exactly the sort of clear-headed determination that I wasn’t feeling.
In the last year, Scott’s family have set up a charity with the aim of making sure people can access the support they need, when they need it. Explaining the impetus behind their campaign, Scott’s brother Grant says, “If you go to the hospital with a broken leg, you wouldn’t expect to be sent away with some paracetamol and be told that they’ll put you on a waiting list for an appointment for treatment in six months’ time, so why should we accept that for mental health issues?”
When I hit a bout of anxiety a couple of years back – the sort where panic attacks come with a side of howling existential dread and pins and needles in my face – I gained personal experience of the gatekeeping that stops people even getting on that waiting list. Having seen my GP, I Ieft clutching a handful of tissues, a prescription for some pills and a leaflet with a phone number to call that would allow me to refer myself to the Glasgow mental health team. There the games began.
The very nice lady on the end of the phone told me that, no, this wasn’t the line to make an appointment, but rather the line that allowed me to request an assessment to see if I qualified for an appointment. Someone would phone me in the next couple of weeks, she promised, but she couldn’t tell me what time or even what day that might be.
The call finally came when I was at my desk in work. I let it go to answer machine, and called them back as soon as I had some space. Which put me back at the start of the cycle. When I didn’t answer the next phonecall, which arrived as I was on the top deck of a bus, I was recorded as having refused to engage.
I know I’m not alone. Friends who’ve tussled with the system, none of them wealthy or benefiting from health insurance, have been forced to scrimp and save to access private appointments.
Figures released this month show that 1,619 children and young people were rejected from Child and Adolescents Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in the last quarter. Only 64.5% children and young people were seen by CAMHS within the 18-week target, down from 69.7% in the previous quarter.
The Scottish Government says that improving mental health is a priority. Launching their ten-year strategy in 2017, Minister for Mental Health Maureen Watt said that “we must prevent and treat mental health problems with the same commitment, passion and drive as we do with physical health problems”. It is very clear that we have a long way to go to achieve that.
Until we make sure that help is actually available when someone asks, we will continue to lose friends and family, people we love.
Find out how you can support Tiny Changes – the mental health charity started in memory of Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison – by going to their website.