I need to begin this piece by stating that I have never liked the idea of ‘mental health’. This phrase refers to an area of experience that is not necessarily ‘mental’ and not necessarily ‘health’. It refers to a wide set of problems in living that are about relationships, emotions and spirituality as much as (or more than) about ‘mental’ processes. These matters are not ‘health’ issues in the same way as heart disease or diabetes are biologically-definable disease entities.
Nevertheless, the actual experiences that are referred to, when we talk about ‘mental health’ are real enough, and are important. For many people, the capacity to contribute to society, and to enjoy life, are greatly diminished by having to deal with depression, anxiety, and self-limiting obsessive patterns of behaviour.
I do not want to exaggerate. I do not believe that we are not experiencing a ‘mental health crisis’. There are a lot of good services that are available, and in general a lot of care, sensitivity and understanding is shown to people who have ‘mental health’ difficulties.
At the same time, things are far from perfect. There are plenty of scary government statistics on the incidence of mental health problems in the Scottish population. These stats can be boiled down to three key facts. First, there are an awful lot of people taking anti-depressant medication. Second, any counselling, psychotherapy or psychology service that is free at the point of delivery, has a long waiting list. Third, this is not a matter of a small section of the population that can be ignored. Almost all of us experience mental health difficulties at some point in our lives. Almost all of us will know someone close to us, whose life is restricted due to mental health difficulties, right now.
I believe that independence would have a positive impact on mental health in Scotland. This belief is not based on an argument that there would be more investment in services, or that services would be better organised. These things might happen, and would be welcome, but are not the heart of the matter.
Independence would have a positive impact on mental health in Scotland because society would begin to move in some new directions. A summary of some of these directions, and their links with mental health, is provided below.
1. Equality is associated with better mental health. Countries where there is less inequality, as assessed by income distribution, have lower rates of depression and other mental health problems. This effect is separate from overall wealth. Poor countries with high rates of equality do better than rich countries with low rates of equality. There are probably many reasons for this pattern. One factor is that inequality introduces ‘invidious comparison’ between a person and other people who are viewed as more successful. In other words, people feel bad about themselves if they see themselves as complete ‘losers’ who have no possibility of achieving much in their lives.
2. Less unemployment means better mental health. There is a substantial amount of evidence, from around the world, that losing a job has a negative effect on mental health and gaining a job has a positive effect. The political consensus of an independent Scotland will inevitably favour employment over austerity.
3. Enjoyment of nature is associated with better mental health. It seems clear that, over a period of time, the political consensus in Scotland is to move in the direction of a shift in land ownership, away from large estates owned by aristocrats and investment companies, toward community control. This will make it easier for people in Scotland to build cabins, participate in new ways of using the land, and so on.
4. Reducing the incidence of negative events and policies that cause mental health problems. A high proportion of mental health difficulties arise from social policies. Unemployment has already been mentioned. Military action is another source of mental health problems, for many service personnel and their families. Mental health problems are also caused by a failure to address domestic violence and sexual abuse. Also by a bad diet. Also by diabetes or heart disease resulting from a bad diet, alcohol abuse and smoking. Also by violent crime. These are all areas in which the political consensus in Scotland (i.e., not just an SNP administration) would move things in the right direction. Just one example: how many people in Scotland have been psychologically affected, directly and indirectly, by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?
5. Participation in art-making promotes positive mental health. This is another are in which there is substantial research evidence. Again, the consensus in Scotland is to value our cultural traditions and to enable wide involvement in art-making, through a variety of educational and voluntary sector initiatives.
These are just some of the ways in which independence will lead to improved mental health. I cannot think of any ways that independence could result in poorer mental health. Over and above the areas mentioned above, I believe that people generally feel that their lives are more meaningful and worthwhile if they are contributing to making a better world or greater cause, and have opportunities to make a difference within their own sphere of influence such as their local community.