Op Ed - Coronavirus is taking its toll on the nation’s mental health – it’s time we took our wellbeing seriously

Originally in Independent Voices

In the past, I have been open about my struggles with anxiety and depression. I know that every so often it can be challenging to stay healthy and positive. That’s true at the best of times, let alone the worst.

If you are feeling down, or up and down, at the moment then you’re not alone. Last week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that nearly half of adults in the UK reported “high” anxiety levels between 20 and 30 March 2020. That’s more than 25 million people.

These figures deserve acknowledgement. And then, we must think about how the country recovers from this crisis – both economically and mentally.

We can do this by grabbing this once in a generation opportunity to change the way we do things. Instead of the government looking solely at economic indicators, it should also factor in metrics on wellbeing and mental health too.

The decision making process would be quite simple: if a policy harms the mental health and wellbeing of society, it should not be implemented. This would work alongside economic factors; if a policy would cause economic decline, it should also not be implemented. New policies must meet both tests.

Currently, the government only looks at economic indicators when making decisions on policies and initiatives. This has, perhaps inadvertently, entrenched economic growth as the sole objective of policymaking, meaning that previously governments undervalued the importance of wellbeing as a meaningful positive outcome.

Now is the time to reconfigure. Success shouldn’t just be measured in pounds. We as individuals, and our communities, are worth so much more than that. Our sense of our worth, or how much we value others in our lives, and our sense of place, simply cannot be priced.

If we use GDP as an indicator alongside a wellbeing indicator, then we have a much better idea of how our society is managing, and where the potential for growth is. And the two work well together, because happier people are also more productive people. We must also ringfence funding to create meaningful ways of improving wellbeing and encourage businesses to do the same. This could be mental health support and training, community engagement or coaching initiatives.

If this idea sounds familiar, that's because it is. Last year, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern launched the country’s first ever "wellbeing budget", requiring all new spending to consider key factors in improving wellbeing. The budget focused on mental health, reducing child poverty and creating a cleaner, digitally-enabled society. More than $1bn has been invested in children’s wellbeing, over $450m allocated for mental health workers and another $200m has been spent on survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Late last year, my party called for the same approach for the UK. At the time some dismissed the idea as fluffy or a gimmick. They mocked the idea of a "minister for happiness." I wonder if those critics feel quite the same now?

Tackling the UK's this growing mental health crisis in a bold, progressive way is now more urgent than ever. It shouldn’t be laughed at. It is time that we put wellbeing at the core of all public policy thinking.

We need to rebuild a healthy and resilient country to power economic growth if we are to bounce back from this crisis. We can do this if we examine the impact of policies on wellbeing, and ensure that people’s mental health is considered at the very highest level.

In the wake of this crisis, let’s recognise that we need to focus on wellbeing and treat ourselves and others in our society with kindness and understanding. We may find it’s not just the compassionate but also the smart thing to do.

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