Being a sufferer makes you understand the risk that late treatment can pose to patients
Just recently, I’ve had an anxiety attack that resulted in me ending up at a police station at three in the morning. For the record, I was not arrested. Rather, the medication I was prescribed intensified my attack and I locked myself out of the house in a state of confusion. I remained wandering around outside until a concerned taxi driver persuaded me into letting him drive me to the station — since he did not know where the nearest hospital was. Apologies to those that were expecting something a bit more exciting, but unfortunately my encounter with the police was kind of pathetic. Though, I’d argue that discussing movies with the police officer who looked after me was not too bad.
And yet this was not the worst anxiety attack I have experienced. I have been struggling with social anxiety my entire life, and was finally diagnosed as of last year. These attacks usually occur when I experience intense emotions in social situations, and despite doing my best to fight back, sometimes I just cannot stop them from happening. Symptoms include dizziness, tightness in my chest and throat, upset stomach, difficulty breathing, inability to sleep, and when it’s at its worst, vomiting. In other words, it’s the kind of feeling an anti-racism activist would get if they were stuck in a room with a diehard Donald Trump supporter.
However, those are just the physical symptoms; emotionally, it’s a whole other monster. During these episodes my thoughts tend to spiral into a storm of self-loathing. As a result of my struggles with anxiety, I have a deep insecurity about being unable to meet the high standards I have set for myself and that people will see me differently if they were to know about my illness. If I have an anxious episode in front of others, my solution is usually to stop speaking to them out of shame. Whenever I am reminded of such incidents, it feels like I am reliving it; I start to believe that I am indeed an insane, irredeemable person and am therefore unworthy of anyone’s respect or affections. While counselling sessions have made it easier to discuss such mortifying instances, they have not necessarily made it easier to look those who witnessed them in the eye.
In theory, a state-funded health care system such as the NHS should be an accessible resource for those with mental health problems. Yet I found that more and more patients like myself are not getting the treatment they need when they need it. According to the NHS, patients can wait up to 18 weeks to finally receive treatment. In my experience, I contacted the counselling service at my university in February, and they did not get in touch with me until term was over; by that time I was not even in the country.
While I am lucky that my situation improved before the end of term, such a long wait is unacceptable for those in more dire situations. In fact, reports from the We Need To Talk coalition state that thousands of people with mental illnesses have attempted suicide while on the waiting list for psychological treatment.
These long waits can be attributed to how many NHS Centres are horrifically understaffed and underfunded; mental health trusts’ deficit increased by 6.3 per cent over the last three years and 10.8 per cent of nurses working in psychiatry were cut. Furthermore, many GPs and therapists alike have been describing their inability to cope with both the financial constraints and an increasing demand (two million people as of last year) for their services. Perhaps this explains why I opted for medication instead of waiting for a reply from the counselling service: I knew there were not enough resources to provide me with the treatment I really needed immediately.
Yes, the NHS is far from a perfect system. But rather than threatening to privatise it or cut back on its staff and services, perhaps we should be looking to expand resources, especially for mental health care, so that patients can get help as soon as possible. It is simply not enough that the maximum waiting time is cut down to 28 days; we should increase the number of staff, and make sure psychiatrists can evaluate patients thoroughly as opposed to feeling pressured to prescribe pills as a quick fix. I believe MP Norman Lamb best summed up the need for more investment into mental health services and for shorter waiting times, during a debate in the House of Commons last December:
‘How can anyone in this Chamber possibly justify this: if someone has suspected cancer, they have a right to an appointment with a specialist within two weeks of referral by their GP, but a youngster with an eating disorder has no such right, yet we know that their condition can kill? That is a scandal and an outrage and it must change. There must be equality of access’.
And that, I must admit, is something to be far more ashamed of than having an anxiety disorder.