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“A burning injustice”: Theresa May meets activists at the Young Minds mental health charity last year (© CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

Mental health seemed to be constantly in the headlines in 2017. The year began with the Prime Minister announcing a package of measures to “transform the way we deal with mental health problems right across society and at every stage of life”. Such problems had been one of the “burning injustices” that Theresa May had spoken about on the steps of Downing Street the previous summer, and now she was seeking to underline her credentials as a social reformer by turning rhetoric into action.

Nor was this ambitious initiative limited to the NHS. There would also be plenty of publicity for the promise made some months later by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that the government (now struggling after its election bruising) would soon be investing an extra £1.3 billion in mental health services annually, making possible the treatment of a million more patients. But what the Prime Minister emphasised in her speech in January last year was that it was above all attitudes towards mental health that needed changing. Striving to improve our mental wellbeing should become as much part of everyday life as striving to improve our physical wellbeing, she argued.

The speech commissioned a review into support for mental health in the workplace and in October this came back with a number of recommendations for employers. Among these was that they produce and implement a mental health at work plan. This was followed in December by a green paper on children’s and young people’s mental health that envisages all schools and colleges having a designated mental health lead.

But by far the biggest impact in terms of media attention was generated by Prince Harry, when he told the Daily Telegraph that he had come close to a “complete breakdown” after years of struggling to cope with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was 12 — and how he had recently been helped by counselling. Sir Simon Wessely, then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, commented that the prince had done more for the communication of mental health awareness in a 25-minute interview than he had in a 25-year career. Yet this was part of a broader campaign by Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to “change the conversation” about mental health. That is the declared goal of Heads Together, a charity launched by them in 2016 with the following rationale: “Through our work with young people, emergency response, homeless charities and with veterans, we have seen time and again that unresolved mental health problems lie at the heart of some of our greatest social challenges.”

To the extent that 2017 also saw a steady stream of celebrities, politicians and sportsmen revealing the difficulties of one kind or another they have had with their mental health, it might be thought that the conversation has changed a good deal already and that openness about such matters is no longer discouraged or disapproved of. This could be the result of initiatives and campaigns that have been around for a while. Among these is Time for Change, a partnership between the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness that since 2007 has spent over £35 million on programmes intended to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people suffering from mental health problems. But it also points to other changes in the way such problems are regarded and responded to. Of note here, surely, is the doubling over the same period in the number of anti-depressant drug prescriptions. In 2016 some 65 million of these were issued in England alone and it is estimated that 10 per cent of the population is currently on this type of medication. Depression and other mental health problems for which treatment by medication has become the norm have themselves become normalised.
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