‘Pursuit of happiness’ is the answer say UK mental health experts

This month, the CentreForum Mental Health Commission concludes what is being described as a ‘landmark study on the state of mental health in England’. The 12-month commission has identified five key priorities for implementation between now and 2020. The final report calls for policy makers to:

  • Establish the mental wellbeing of the nation or ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a clear and measurable goal of government
  • Roll out a national well-being programme to promote mutual support, self-care and recovery, and reduce the crippling stigma that too often goes hand in hand with mental ill-health
  • Prioritise investment in the mental health of children and young people right from conception
  • Make places of work mental health friendly, with government leading the way as an employer
  • Better equip primary care to identify and treat mental health problems, closing the treatment gap that leaves one in four of the adult population needlessly suffering from depression and anxiety and one to two percent experiencing severe mental illness such as schizophrenia

Now, I don’t know about you, but while the intention of these recommendations may be noble, when you start to try to grab hold of these points, it seems there is nothing to sink your teeth into – the image of a toothless doberman springs to mind.

For instance, there is a big difference between establishing ‘the mental wellbeing of the nation’ and establishing ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as a measurable goal of government. As any therapist worth their salt will tell you ‘mental wellbeing’ and ‘happiness’ are not synonymous – it may well be that, in order to establish mental wellbeing, a period of decided unhappiness may be indicated, whilst difficult feelings are discussed and worked through.

Then there’s the reality that what makes one individual ‘happy’ may not be in the interests of the social good – how about the paedophile whose greatest happiness is derived from, well, paedophilia?

And how exactly would one propose going about measuring the level of societal happiness – should the government decide the parameters? And, in any case, how can measuring in generality possibly tell you anything meaningful about individual suffering?

Moving to the second point, nothing wrong, on the face of it, with the idea of ‘rolling out a national well-being programme’, but again, who’s to say what constitutes well-being? And are we not already steeped in national mental health well-being programmes, from support given through the NHS and other government-funded mental health organisations? Just what is being proposed here? And is there still a ‘crippling stigma’ surrounding mental ill health? Really? It seems to me that this is one area in which there has been much progress made in the last ten years – to the point where we risk actually enabling sufferers of mental ill health, through sheer sentimentality.

Other gripes – how exactly does one prioritise the mental health of a baby in utero (note the use of the word ‘conception’ in the third point) apart from letting it live, of course (but that’s a whole other story) and is it true that people needlessly suffer from depression and anxiety?

Again, as any good therapist will tell you, depression and anxiety are often the clarion call to growth, the only way an individual can be woken up from painful, destructive and, yes, often crippling ways of being in the world.

At very best, these recommendations demonstrate a lack of insight and understanding into the true nature of mental ill health and at worst, they risk creating more suffering and frustration for those who will be told that the answer to their manifold difficulties is to ‘get happy’.


Written by Jacqui Hogan