Steve Mallen explains why, after the devastating suicide of his son, Edward, he’s demanding a transformation in attitudes towards mental health research.
My own personal journey, in terms of mental health, really stems back to when I stood next to my son’s coffin in church. Addressing the many hundreds of people who had turned up to his funeral, I made a public promise that day that I would investigate what had happened to my dear son and I would seek reform on behalf of his generation.
My family, prior to that time, knew next to nothing about mental illness. We live in a society that is mentally illiterate, and that is one of the most significant barriers to making systemic improvements and improving the outcomes of people who experience psychological disorders.
But then what can only be described as an absolute tragedy occurred, and this brilliant young man, with outstanding prospects, from a very good home, with a stable background and no impairment in terms of his upbringing whatsoever, developed severe, clinical depression in a short space of time, resulting in his suicide.
After two years of extensive research and investigation since that time, I have come to the conclusion that my son simply should not have died. I’ve devoted those two years to fulfilling the promise I made that day. I have made it my business to review the entire mental health system in this country, to understand how it operates and to understand where improvement is needed.
And I have come to the conclusion that we are losing thousands of people each year needlessly as a result of mental illness. I’ve come to the conclusion that the burden of mental illness on society is of catastrophic proportions and yet is preventable and avoidable.
And for that I swear allegiance to all mental health research. That’s why I’m swearing. I’m swearing for my son and for his generation and for the betterment of our society.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that, if we had a system of better early intervention for people at risk, we would save millions of people from misery. It would save a fortune financially too, because work to prevent mental health problems developing and to intervene early is also far cheaper than treating people who are in crisis.
But early intervention is predicated on the existence of good evidence and appropriate science, and that leads us on to the role of mental health research – and more specifically the lack of mental health research.
The most efficient way to prevent mental illness would be to better understand what causes illnesses, their epidemiology and how they progress.
But the current misalignment of research funding compared to the level of need is a national disgrace. So much more could be done with relatively modest increases.
It’s often been said to me that mental illness is an intractable problem because the brain is incredibly complex. I do understand that, but I think if we start from that perspective, we start from a position of defeatism.
There is also a good comparison to be made here to dementia, for example. Until relatively recently it used to be the case that dementia was stigmatised, poorly understood and poorly researched.
If you look at what has happened in the past 30 years, not only has the stigma gone and dementia become part of the national conversation, but we have made incredible inroads into understanding the epidemiology of the disease and its impact. A seemingly enormous, complex, intractable problem has started to look like we might be able to do something about it.
Or think about HIV. That’s a disease that was unbelievably stigmatised, but again the narrative has changed and we have made tremendous progress through research.
I see no reason why, with a serious injection of resources, we can’t begin to make similar progress in many areas of mental health. I just don’t buy that this is an intractable, insoluble problem.
That’s why I’m ardent in my desire to support MQ in its calls for increased funding for mental health research.
And it’s why I am absolutely delighted to fucking swear in support of an increase in mental health research.
I swear at every level for what happened to my son.
I swear with profanity at the failings of the current system.
And I am also delighted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the many other grieving families, and with the many wonderful organisations that are active in mental health, in swearing allegiance to the cause for reform and progress. Through research, we can make a substantial difference to our society, saving millions of people from misery.
Last updated: 4 September 2017
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