Parity of Esteem, translated as giving equality of value between mental health and physical health, became a legal responsibility of the NHS in the Social Care Act 2012. This was acknowledged by the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health through the introduction of waiting time standards and a push for early intervention for those experiencing a first episode of psychosis. Despite the increased awareness of mental health as an area of health requiring attention, there has been little push for a universal increase in education around specific mental health problems until very recently, where the government has proposed universal mental health education in schools by 2020.
While mental health was always of interest to me, studying for an MSc in Global Population Health whilst working at XenZone introduced me to health and disease on a global scale, and only deepened my desire for parity of esteem to be realised. Mental health accounts for 14% of the global burden of disease, and is certainly not only a problem for developed countries, with 75% of people affected residing in low-income countries. Having said this, developed countries have the resources and responsibility to take significant action to reduce this burden of disease.
As part of my MSc dissertation I became interested in Mental Health Literacy, defined as the “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders which aid their recognition, management or prevention”. Specifically, I was interested in the mental health literacy of eating disorders, for which the typical age of onset is 13-17 years old. As an individual who faced the barriers to treatment for this illness I knew, before having read the literature, how poor the level of understanding, recognition, and knowledge was in the UK, in relation to appropriate support. The existing scholarship on this subject only confirmed my beliefs.
A symptom of having an eating disorder is its ego-dystonic nature, where the sufferer is in denial that there is a problem; a symptom which makes it tremendously hard for someone to receive help if they are not yet willing. Not a lot can be done to change this, but once they have acknowledged the problem, sufferers in the UK are faced with barriers to care which can be changed. These include stigma and shame around the illness due to societal attitudes and misunderstanding of the illness, poor societal and professional recognition of the illness, and the restrictive thresholds a sufferer has to meet before being ‘ill-enough’ to receive specialist care. The potential for early intervention was recognised in a parliamentary debate earlier this year where it was recommended that more action was required to support eating disorder sufferers accessing help at an earlier stage of illness.
My research involving young people on Kooth focuses on deepening our understanding of where adolescents gain knowledge about mental health, in this case eating disorders, and whether they are likely to know the appropriate treatment options available. With further understanding of the existing levels of knowledge there is more likelihood that the future health education proposals will target areas where barriers to care and unmet need is prevalent. It is my hope that improvements in health education, specifically mental health, will contribute towards parity of esteem for mental health so that no young person suffers for longer than they have to for fear of, or lack of knowledge about accessing services.