This is the first of a monthly series of articles by health professionals Colin Nash and Carolyn Smith published in the Mid Somerset Newspaper Series.
How we treat mental ill health and how society views this issue has changed enormously over the past century. A hundred years ago Mendip Hospital at South Horrington had 800 beds. The same geographical area is now served by around 40 beds.
Some consider this is too few beds, but it has been made possible by radical changes in our understanding of mental health and the treatments available.
Although the levels of funding and support available for men and women with mental illness are frequently criticised, new medications have meant that people with the most severe forms of mental illness can usually live in their own homes and community.
We have come to realise that the institution of the hospital changed people. Much of what was “treated” or managed in hospital was simply the effects of spending years in such an institution rather than illness.
Attitudes to mental health are also changing, although there is still a long way to go. Many figures in public life now openly talk about their struggles with mental health problems. For example, Professor Henry Marsh on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs spoke positively about the part a period of depression had played in his life.
What we understand to be mental illness has also changed. When Mendip Hospital was at its peak, promiscuity and being a single mother were viewed as mental disorders warranting long periods in hospital. At the same time, conditions such as personality disorders were not understood at all.
There is little doubt our view of what is, and what is not a mental health condition, will continue to change.
One in four of us will be affected by a mental health problem during the course of our lives. Hospital and powerful drugs remain the primary treatment for only a small number but there are a much wider range of options for many of the most common problems.
These include talking therapies or counselling, and lifestyle changes – there is now clear research that says exercise and diet can have as much effect on mood as anti-depressants of mild to moderate depression.
Being open about mental health and talking about it in the same way you might talk about back pain can also have a powerful impact. The burden or shame of depression greatly compound the condition.
Although pressures on mental health services are massive, there are a range of organisations out there that offer support. Heads Up at South Horrington, for example, offers a safe space and a range of activities that support people on their road to recovery from mental health problems.