A key benefit of writing my column is that I get to read works which discuss mental health, and ‘In My Right Mind’ by Tony Weekes, who I had the pleasure of interviewing, is nothing short of a game changer.
In brief, Tony combines personal experiences with facts and case studies, to describe the current mental health crisis, caused by stigma, lack of funding and cohesion. He then explains how his initiative, Unity, will facilitate changes through: Unity in Higher Education, Restore, Rebuild & Grow, Open Access, Empowerment through Unity and Unity Mastermind to dismantle the problem, make treatment more accessible and provide socio-economic independence for sufferers.
He lays out that the book is for you if:
- You suffer from mental ill health, need to find the inner courage to open-up and want those around you to have a deeper understanding of your suffering
- You want to help a friend, acquaintance, work colleague or loved one come to terms with their situation
- You are passionate about protecting the mental health of your children, grandchildren, or even your unborn children, and the generations to follow
- You are advancing in your educational journey and want to give yourself a great advantage in the adventure of life
then the knowledge contained in this book, relating to our collective mental health and how you put it to good use, will prove to be priceless.
Tony does not proclaim to be a mental health specialist, but instead, a human, who has seen first-hand through his family, the detrimental effects of mental health problems. He grew up in the East End, the son of a consultant surgeon and a nurse. After getting his degree, he reached office management level, where he now devotes his time, energy and enthusiasm to building solutions to what he rightly sees as a widespread problem.
He agrees that the stigma around mental health has gotten ‘better in the sense that people are talking more openly’ and that the openness of social media and schemes such as Heads Together have contributed to this. However, he argues that ‘yes, it’s great to talk about it, but it’s far gone the time to act and make real change.’ The fact that many employees and students are too afraid to speak up, through fear of being ‘put to the back of the queue, having a bad label attached to them, or not getting work’ clearly shows the stigma is still prevalent, he stipulated. In his eyes, this is fundamentally caused by a lack of understanding, even a denial, of mental health and its seriousness.
To sufferers, in particular, students, Tony emulates my opinion: ‘don’t be scared to talk. It’s not a life sentence, you can still get a degree and a good job. It’s better to speak than to spiral, it’s a real sign of strength, intelligence and employability to have the courage to say you aren’t ok.’
When we discussed the government’s current policies on mental health, which Tony also investigates in-depth in his book, he summed it up in two words ‘sound bites.’ David Cameron in 2015 promised a ‘revolution in mental health’ and Theresa May mirrored that in her ill-fated snap election. In order for this to alter, Tony hopes his book will plant a seed of change, and as people discuss his work through word of mouth, or digitally, the public mindset will shift from a ‘me to we’ to the extent that real investment will be made and policy will shift from reactive to proactive.
I won’t divulge into the depths of the manifesto, which can be found online: https://www.unity-mhs.org/, or the nitty-gritty analysis of his book – I wouldn’t be able to do it justice anyway. I shall, instead, give a whistle stop guide. On their website, he gives an outline of what Unity is, he states: ‘Unity is a grassroots movement to revolutionise mental health care in the United Kingdom through education, recognition and intervention.’ Its aim is to include all of the community, reducing the strain on the NHS and creating an MHS, with the ability to assist people of all ages, in all aspects of their lives relative to their mental health.
I’ll describe two of these programmes, schools and digital access, to paint a picture of the kind of thing he means. Currently, in secondary schools there is normally one teacher trained in mental health, now I don’t know about you, but my secondary school had 1,500 pupils, so the idea of one teacher for all of those hormone filled teenagers seems ridiculous. Tony suggests that all teachers should be trained to notice symptoms, beginning in the private sector. If they flagged an issue there would be a professional who visited the school periodically for concerns to be raised. Once the professional is made aware, a quadripartite engagement between school, pupil, professional and parents would be set up to get immediate support, rather than allowing for the issues to snowball and become deep-seated. Moreover, he strongly calls for mindfulness and mental health to be put on the curriculum from primary school age; as a report from The Guardian concluded that for every £1 the government invests in child wellbeing, mindfulness included, they saved £84 in the long term due to the positive ramifications.
Tony emphasised the need for universal access, he hopes to create a ‘one stop shop’ app, where people can put in their postcode and the services that they need, then click a button which would then list what is available in the local area. This would provide instant availability to anyone with a smartphone.
As well as aiming to improve mental health worldwide with Unity, Tony also wants to use it to help the survivors of Grenfell. In a single night, hundreds of people lost loved ones and all their possessions, with the repercussions on the community to be felt for generations to come. Children as young as four are said to be role playing the night of the fire at nursery – this is an early sign of PTSD. To him, ‘that one area represents everything in terms of the mental health crisis in our midst. It also, in a positive sense, could be used to show that if the right, proactive mental health schemes work in that area it can work in other places.’
Now where do we come in? When I asked Tony who his core audience was he answered simply, ‘students. They are the leaders of the future. Someone right now at university will be the next PM. If awareness and change is made at the source, then change will happen. I want Unity to have a presence at every university so that students can speak up, lead a movement and help bridge the gaps in support.’ Like Grenfell, universities manifest our current crisis and if Unity can improve the services at one university, Queen Mary could be the first *fingers and toes crossed*, it can act as a model for others.
In a couple of weeks, Tony will be doing a book signing at Queen Mary. Once I know dates I’ll plaster them across the column and CUB’s social media. If you are interested in reading his book, I strongly advise it, or if you want to get involved with Unity go on: https://www.unity-mhs.org/book. Here you can order a book, which comes with a free family support guide – this is great for those who aren’t suffering with mental health but are family members on the frontline of support, or register to volunteer as an online ambassador.
Moreover, in order to get the ball rolling on Unity having a presence at Queen Mary, Tony has asked me to set up a Unity Society so that as many people can spread awareness and participate in the project. If anyone is interested, feel free to drop me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org!
Let’s finally turn words into action!