One of the subjects up for discussion when I was chatting with journalist and author Sybil Ruscoe on her radio programme at BBC Oxford on Friday is that people in England with mild to moderate mental health concerns, including panic attacks, anxiety and depression, are to be prescribed self-help books which they can borrow from their local library. Titles such as The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns, How to Stop Worrying by Frank Tallis and Overcoming Anger and Irritability by William Davies will be among the 30 prescription titles that libraries across England will soon stock in an attempt to improve the wellbeing of the nation. The Books on Prescription scheme is being rolled out across GPs surgeries and libraries in England in a few months’ time and is based on schemes pioneered in Wales, Denmark and New Zealand which, it is claimed, have been enormously successful.
I have to say that I am a great fan of reading for self-improvement. Writing, too, has been a hugely cathartic experience for me in overcoming some very difficult times. The first draft of my novel Swimming Upstream was, in fact, born out of the loneliness I felt many years ago after the breakup of a long-term relationship. I longed to read about someone going through what I was going through and, failing to find it, I wrote about it instead. I do have some concerns, though, about the scheme. Whilst it is almost certainly possible for those with a milder form of depression or anxiety to “think” their way out of it, those with more serious difficulties will need more help than this. I hope that these people are not going to be sidelined by GP surgeries on tight budgets and told to read a book, when what they really need is to talk to someone who can help.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem in any one year. Yet the provision of help for those who are mentally ill is badly wanting in this country with long waiting lists for counselling, cuts to psychiatric and community nursing services and insufficient funding or priority being given to ensure that experienced help is available for those that need it, when they need it – which is usually straight away, not several months down the line.
Priority is still given to the use of anti-depressants, mood stabilisers and tranquilisers to treat mental health conditions, but whilst drugs are often essential for the short term treatment of those in crisis (and, of course, in many cases for longer term treatment) more emphasis needs to be placed within the NHS on a holistic approach to mental well-being. In the midst of an episode of anxiety or depression, concentrating long enough to read a book is likely to be impossible. Many people are going to need the help of an experienced therapist, someone who can guide them through the difficult and emotionally crippling stages of their illness and help and support them on the road to recovery. As Lizzie says to her friend Zara in Swimming Upstream of Susan Jeffers’ book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, “That book’s not for people with manic depression”.
A case by case approach is needed within the NHS to identify and treat those with symptoms of mental illness according to their individual needs. The government needs to prioritise funding for this to happen. We all know that money is tight at the moment, but cuts to these services are not the answer. The best way to get people back to work, and thereby reduce the strain on the benefits system, is to give them the help and self-empowerment they need to live the lives that they deserve.