England is known for many things—wry comedy, a corgi-loving queen, a stiff upper lip. But the country isn’t often associated with an openness around mental health issues. But, as the New York Times reports, that seems to be changing—thanks in part to an innovative (and free) talk therapy program.
The government-funded initiative, called Healthy Minds, offers free talk therapy to help Brits dealing with anxiety, depression and other common mental health issues. The program, which began in 2008, now helps almost a million people per year throughout England, with support centers everywhere from “remote farming villages, industrial suburbs, isolated immigrant communities” to highly affluent areas, Benedict Carey writes from the Times.
That’s an even bigger deal than it sounds like: free talk therapy offers a more “centralized system for ensuring that people get scientifically backed approaches” to treating—and destigmatizing—mental health problems, Carey writes in the Times. It’s also a real-world experiment gathering vast amounts of anonymous data to learn about what treatments are most effective, something usually studied in a controlled lab setting. (Clients may give their names during sessions but any identifying information is excluded from the research.)
In addition to making mental health care more accessible, the program is helping to destigmatize psychotherapy. It probably doesn’t hurt that Prince William, Prince Harry and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, have been talking recently about their own experiences with mental health issues and encouraging people to do the same.
These centers offer a few different types of therapy. People seeking mental health services can reach out to make a phone appointment themselves, but often they’re referred by a general practitioner. The first call is similar to an initial therapy session that includes a staff member, called a psychological well-being practitioner, engaging in a “partly scripted, hourlong evaluation to determine how safe the new client is, how desperate and why,” Carey writes. Afterwards, the practitioner will decide whether phone therapy (for lower intensity cases) or in-person therapy is the best option.
Both data and expert opinions suggest the program’s approach is effective. “The number of adults in England who have recently received some mental health treatment has jumped to one in three from one in four,” Carey writes, and that number is expected to go up.
“You now actually hear young people say, ‘I might go and get some therapy for this,’” Dr. Tim Kendall, clinical director for mental health for the National Health Service, told the Times. “You’d never, ever hear people in this country say that out in public before.”
The program is good for everyone—participants and the country as a whole. “We made the case that, just on lost work alone, the program would pay for itself,” Dr. Richard Layard, a pioneer of the program, economist and member of the House of Lords, told the Times. The program is widely accepted and has lasted through “three governments, both ideologically left and right leaning,” Carey writes. The current budget has grown to $500 million from only $40 million and is expected to continue growing in the upcoming years.
There are critics though, who argue, for example, that the program is making general practitioners less equipped to deal with mental health. General practitioners know “less about mental health than they did 20 years ago; they’ve become de-skilled,” Dr. Rachel Jenkins, a professor emeritus at King’s College London, told the Times. Plus, a huge demand for treatment paired with a shortage of therapists (who often have 25 clients at a time) creates a backlog. To counter this, the centers have made sure that clients get “educational materials or online resources right away, to give them something to study while they wait for an appointment,” Carey writes.
Some centers have introduced online therapy options as well, and while this treatment is relatively new, it could help address staffing shortages and encourage those who are more reluctant to talk to someone to get help. This is especially true for young men, Carey writes, “who can be difficult to bring in for face-to-face therapy and are often willing to work diligently on the computer and by phone.”
Ultimately, it’s a big deal that the Brits are making this kind of commitment to ensure people have access to the treatment they need to improve their quality of life. While there’s still a long way to go, both in England and abroad, hopefully other countries will follow England’s lead and adopt similarly effective programs.
Dr. David Clark. a professor of psychology at Oxford university and the other mind behind the program, summed up the need for the program perfectly to the Times: “If someone has a broken leg, he or she immediately gets treatment. If the person has a broken soul, they usually do not.”
Read more on the New York Times.