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Mental health concerns growing

PUBLISHED: 11:27 06 October 2008 | UPDATED: 21:26 05 July 2010

Chief executive of Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust Pat Holman.

Chief executive of Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust Pat Holman.

YOUNG people taking risks, taking drugs, and getting involved in violent crime - such images are rarely out of the media.

But to Pat Holman, chief executive of Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust, these problems are the sign of growing mental health issues among our youngsters, and what she describes as "her greatest concern".

YOUNG people taking risks, taking drugs, and getting involved in violent crime - such images are rarely out of the media.

But to Pat Holman, chief executive of Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust, these problems are the sign of growing mental health issues among our youngsters, and what she describes as “her greatest concern”.

She says: “Where I have the greatest concern is what is happening to children and young people, the lack of attention that is paid to their sense of hopelessness, the number of young people who harm themselves, who are very impulsive and risk-taking with drugs and their lives generally.”

It is this risk-taking that shows itself as binge-drinking, as the high proportion of young men killed in road accidents, and rising levels of sexually transmitted diseases caused by unprotected sex.

But she admits it is difficult to tell youngsters the error of their ways: “No-one could have told me anything when I was that age, certainly not what would happen to me when I was old - which was 22.”

So what are the answers?

She says: “We need to think much more about what is happening to children and young people. We will have to find solutions through other young people - such as youth workers, not my generation.

“It will be about being much less judgemental than we are now. Maybe we need to learn parenting, because the next generation will be parents themselves.”

She does not want to lay the blame at the feet of parents - she says parents and relatives have felt blamed by professionals for years when their loved one falls ill. But she says: “The context in which you live contributes to what you become. It is not all genetic. Parenting has to be one of the most responsible complicated things in the world to do - and how much harder if you have a difficult childhood yourself.”

Drug or alcohol abuse is a big issue among the trust's patients. And in recent years her staff have been seeing a new problem. “What used to be considered ok - cannabis - we are now seeing much stronger kinds, and it has links with paranoia and violence.”

What is not clear is whether people turn to drugs or alcohol to seek solace from existing mental health problems, or whether the drugs caused the mental health problems. But, she warns: “It could be that a mentally ill person was a child or young person who gave it a try with their mates and came out the other side with some quite disordered thinking. Do we pay attention to that or wash our hands of it?”

Drug-taking and risky behaviour may not be what we think of as mental health problems. But Ms Holman suggests that mental health issues are everywhere in society - and even the tailgating driver is displaying them. She says society is to blame - and therefore must fix the damage it is causing.

“We as human beings contribute to the problems and therefore the solutions. We put massive levels of stress on people all the time. Competition in business, trying to produce the cheapest goods possible, targets and standards, it all causes stress.

“There is the person who sits on your tail when driving and adds to your stress and also their own. I see it increasingly in supermarkets, and in queues. Those things are different from long term conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, but not necessarily any less disabling.

“I think this really is society's problem. If we don't get it right we have to live with the consequences.”

Ms Holman has worked in mental health for 32 years, starting off as a mental health nurse. She never for a moment imagined she would be where she is today. But her impulse was always to make people better. And when she could not make people better, because the problem was the attitude of their school, or their neighbours, or the support they needed was not there, she decided to change the system instead. So she moved into management, and started at Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Trust as chief executive eight years ago.

But although mental health problems are widespread - one in four adults experience a diagnosable mental health problem in any one year, according to the Office of National Statistics - there is still prejudice and discrimination. She says: “Discrimination hasn't got any better. In fact it has got worse over the last few years.”

And she warns that we are likely to see a rise in mental health problems as financial climate gets worse and puts a strain on people.

“There are people like you and I who will face a series of events they never saw coming and feel unable to cope with, like losing the mortgage on a house, and that puts strain on relationships, they turn to alcohol or drugs, or great levels of despair and anxiety. These are people who need exactly the things that are breaking down around them.”

She says there are two solutions. One is to understand what lies behind a person's poor mental health. And the other is the one that if we are lucky, can keep us mentally healthy in the first place. It sounds like the simplest thing in the world, but to some people is also the hardest.

“Relationships are the most critical: to have a friend, to be valued, to have something worth hearing or saying. To be taken notice of.”

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