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Mental health problems constitute the largest single source of world economic burden, with an estimated global cost of £1.6 trillion – greater than cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and diabetes combined (Mental Health Foundation, 2015). In the UK alone, the estimated costs of mental health problems are over £100 billion each year.

The alumni-led Healthcare Professional Interest Network hosted a panel event at the Business School in November to discuss the current mental healthcare situation in the UK, examining the wider issues and varied perspectives, and looking ahead to future solutions.

A diverse panel of experts spoke to an audience of over 50 Imperial College and Business School alumni, students and guests. Each speaker offered a different area of expertise – neurology, pharmaceuticals, psychiatry and patient/user leadership – providing for a spirited and eye-opening discussion.

The panel was chaired by Ben Howlett, Director of Public Policy Projects and former MP for Bath. He introduced the speakers:

Frank Wiegand introduced his work at Janssen UK & Ireland – one of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical companies – and explained that ongoing research and development is primarily focused on Alzheimer’s disease and mood disorders.

Worldwide, the number of people suffering from a mood disorder is the equivalent of the entire population of the US
Frank Wiegand
Janssen UK
Frank Wiegand

“The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease has resulted in ageing populations that are economically crippling countries like Japan and South Korea,” he said. “We are working on drugs to slow it down.”

“Worldwide, the number of people suffering from a mood disorder is the equivalent of the entire population of the US,” he went on to say. “Depression is very prevalent and causes all sorts of economic issues, particularly in the workforce.”

Frank acknowledged the issues with developing effective drugs for mental illness – namely that there are no good animal models for depression, and human studies take significant time. “It can take years to see if a treatment is effective.”

David Gilbert spoke about his experiences with anxiety and depression, including six years of going through the mental health system.

Those of us that have personal experience in this area are ripe for leadership positions – we have passion, vision and understand the importance of high quality relationships, but we’re robbed of opportunities to lead.
David Gilbert
InHeath Assciates
David Gilbert

He argued that a particular form of failure of leadership is behind the mental health crisis – that the people who are directly affected by the issues and who bring ‘jewels of insight and wisdom from the caves of suffering’ are shut out of positions of power.

“Those of us that have personal experience in this area are ripe for leadership positions – we have passion, vision and understand the importance of high quality relationships, but we’re robbed of opportunities to lead,” he said. “This country excludes outsider innovation.”

David described his frustration during his time as an inpatient in a psychiatric ward, as fellow patients and friends committed suicide while the hospital succeeded in meeting their designated safety targets. He blames the impersonal, ‘one size fits all’ approach to patient safety, and says mental health leaders are missing the mark because they aren’t consulting the people at risk – this means ‘safety’ is defined through a professional lens and largely focuses on containment.

“Locking the doors and further isolating patients increases risk rather than reducing it,” he argued. “Don’t treat patients like children. Open the doors, in many senses, let us out (so we can help build trusted relationships founded on being autonomous adults) and in (to the decision making tables) and allow us access to leadership.”

According to Professor Sir Simon Wessely, there has been a revolution in mental healthcare in the last 50 years in the UK – “which is progress we should be proud of.” He credited a focus on community settings for treatment in particular.

We’ve increased demand and decreased resources – and now the system is about to collapse
Professor Sir Simon Wessely
Kings College London
Professor Sir Simon Wessely

He also noted that despite the popular misconception that mental disorders are on the rise, the rate has actually remained steady for the last 50 years. The only exception to this is a recent spike in anxiety in women aged 16-24, of which the reason is currently unclear.

However, Professor Sir Wessely acknowledged that “we’ve increased demand and decreased resources – and now the system is about to collapse.”

“We’re still waiting for the next revolution – we’re not quite there yet.”

Ben then opened up questions from the floor, which led to an engaging discussion about the importance of separating ongoing conditions with more temporary forms of depression relating to trauma – such as bereavement, which is not a psychological disorder.

“We should not be pathologizing normal,” said Professor Sir Wessely.

There was also discussion around what good mental health looks like, and the difficulty of diagnosing mental disorders.

David emphasised the importance of, “choice, support, love, relationships, meaningful work, nature, support,” in defining positive mental health. “We need to re-humanise healthcare. It’s all about connections.”

Frank explained that “there’s no objective manifestation of mental illness, no good quantifiable measurements, compared to having a broken leg or a tumour.”

Simon noted that the way GPs are trained to deal with mental health is changing, and that they are now more equipped to pass on knowledge and referrals.

Facilitator and MBA alumnus Michael Barker said of the evening: “We were honoured to have such an excellent panel of speakers, who are all deeply passionate and engaged on issues around mental healthcare.”

“The event was also a great opportunity to network with other alumni and professionals in the healthcare sector.”

Imperial College Business School thanks the facilitators of the Healthcare Professional Interest Network for hosting this event. The Network run events throughout the year – please visit the Business School’s website for more details.

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