My story: Why I’m passionate about mental health research
Since ancient times, the 1st of May or May Day (Beltane in Scotland), has marked the transition from Spring to Summer. As a student in Edinburgh in the 1970’s, it meant climbing Arthur’s Seat and washing your face in the morning dew, and perhaps missing a few lectures later. While May 2020 gave us little to celebrate, May 2021 does feel markedly different and more positive for the summer ahead.
By contrast to the positive “May Day” message of summer coming, ‘mayday’ (from the French m’aidez) is an internationally recognised distress signal. For my closest friends at University, ‘mayday’ and “May Day” are inextricably linked. On 1st May 1973, one of our inner circle committed suicide. It was such a shock to us all. Why had we not seen his trouble and despair? What had we missed? What could we have done? Now we know that suicide is one of the most common causes of death in young men.
In those days, mental health problems were still heavily stigmatised and largely hidden from view, particularly for conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Things have moved on. There is much more awareness that anxiety and depression affect a large fraction of the population. Sometimes, an outward appearance of success and confidence masks inner turmoil. It is good to see an increasing number of celebrities speak out about their problems. As Roman Kemp encouraged us to do in a recent BBC programme responding to the death by suicide of a close friend of his, it’s important to ask ‘are you alright’ not once, but twice. You can watch the episode in the link below.
Covid-19 has raised awareness of mental health issues even further. Our CovidLife surveys have shown that anxiety, worry, depression and loneliness have reached worryingly high levels this past year. You can see our initial results below.
We have now joined forces with eleven other studies in the UK to see how levels of distress have changed in nearly 60,000 individuals throughout the pandemic. Our study found that people with a history of poor mental health pre-pandemic were more likely to miss healthcare appointments, earn less or lose jobs during the pandemic. Extra NHS, social care and financial support is clearly needed to prevent further widening of existing inequalities between those with good and those with poor mental health.
This growing awareness of mental health problems and how they are inextricably linked to other health problems is why Generation Scotland has always looked at health and well-being. It’s also why we want to make it about both genetic (nature) and environmental (nurture) factors. Only by taking an open-minded and inclusive approach could we hope to reach a better understanding about what matters most at both the individual and population level. I will be back next month with more news on how we hope to grow Generation Scotland into an even larger and more valuable study. In the meantime, stay safe, stick to the rules, but also enjoy the benefits of the loosening of restrictions as we move into summer.