One of the great comedy put-downs on British television came when Caroline Aherne was playing the wonderful Mrs Merton. Her victim was Debbie McGee, wife of Paul Daniels.
‘So Debbie … ’ asked Mrs Merton with that deceptively innocent expression on her face ‘…what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’
Like all good comedy it was funny because it seemed to touch on an uncomfortable truth. That’s why I recalled it when the story broke this week about 13 young people who had joined Goldman Sachs as trainee analysts complaining about their treatment.
David Solomon, chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs & Co., gestures as he speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview
Goldman’s is the most powerful and ruthless investment bank on the planet. (Pictured, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. headquarters stands in New York)
Goldman’s is the most powerful and ruthless investment bank on the planet. When it’s recruiting it can take its pick of the very brightest graduates. The average pay at the bank — note ‘average’ — is more than £180,000.
So we can reasonably assume that the lucky 13 knew what awaited them when they landed the most coveted traineeships in the industry.
It seems not. They made the headlines because they agreed with each other that they were being forced to work too hard: 95 hours some weeks apparently. Nothing funny about that, you may say. All employees — however well rewarded — are entitled to be treated decently. It was what they did about it that struck me as rather strange.
They conducted a mental health survey among themselves to compare their mental health before and after joining the bank. The scale was one to ten. It turned out that before they joined Goldman’s their average ‘score’ was 8.8 out of 10. Afterwards it had fallen to 2.8.
I confess that I did not know such surveys even existed and I tried to imagine explaining the concept to my parents.
My father himself once had a breakdown. We kids were woken in the middle of the night by shouting and sobbing coming from my parents’ bedroom. It was not because of long working hours.
He worked harder than any man I have ever known. But he was self-employed and the work had dried up. He was terrified that he would not be able to put enough food on the table for his large family.
He seemed a little strange and subdued for a few days, but no mention was made of that night. Years later my mother told me he’d had a ‘nervous breakdown’. She would never have used the expression ‘mental illness’. It carried a terrible stigma.
The grim, forbidding mental hospitals were called ‘loony bins’. I suppose that appalling language was a form of defence mechanism. We were afraid of them and what they contained.
Thank God almost all of them have been closed down since my childhood and we now recognise that mental illness is as much a part of the human condition as ‘physical’ illness. Indeed the very distinction between the two is dubious, given our knowledge of how much the mind and the body interact with each other.
As that knowledge expands so will the range of what constitutes mental illness. But experts in the field acknowledge that it’s not always easy.
If we’re worried about our blood pressure a cardiologist can check out our heart and suggest treatment. Because psychiatrists can’t examine our brains in the same way they have to study our behaviour.
So mental illnesses are categorised as ‘syndromes’, each referring to a certain pattern of behaviour. It’s because mental health treatment is based on interpreting the symptoms that the way we talk about them is so important. Which takes me back to those young, overworked bankers.
Mental health has gone from being a forbidden subject in my parents’ time to being compulsory today.
Remember those endless interviews with teenagers about the effect on them of not having been able to go to school?
How many times did you hear them tell the interviewer (sometimes prompted, usually not): ‘It’s been affecting my mental health.’ And how often did the interviewer follow up with: ‘In what way?’
The correct answer is almost never. It was simply accepted that the ‘mental health’ of millions of children was harmed by not going to school, whatever else may have been happening in their lives.
You’d have to be an idiot not to recognise that the terrible year of Covid is likely to have been harmful to many children in all sorts of ways, but encouraging them to see it through the lens of mental health is dangerous.
You might say it’s just words and language changes all the time. Where you or I might have said we were feeling a bit fed-up or out of sorts, young people today will talk about their mental health being affected. It all comes down to the same thing doesn’t it?
No it doesn’t. Mental health is different.
I know a young man who was savagely attacked on the street a year ago. His injuries were real and so was the effect on his mental health. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That was not a subjective self-assessment. It was an objective clinical assessment for which he needed treatment.
Mental health has gone from being a forbidden subject in my parents’ time to being compulsory today
I’m not suggesting that all those youngsters who’ve had a pretty miserable few months don’t need a bit of help and encouragement. Of course they do. What I am suggesting is that the objectification of mental health ‘feelings’ or ‘issues’ leads to a dangerous assumption.
It’s saying: ‘I have “got” something — a condition which only a highly trained doctor can help me with. There’s nothing I can do about it. I need a mental health doctor.’
My young friend with PTSD told me he hears that from his own friends all the time.
Language matters. It helps shape the way we view the world and how we react to it. As the old saying goes, ‘to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail’. If we turn ‘mental health’ into our favoured hammer, everything will become a mental illness nail. My question is: are we, as a society, in the process of forging such a hammer?
Maybe the best equipped to answer it are those very clever young Goldman Sachs trainees who felt the need to measure their ‘mental health’ on some weird scale to tell themselves what they already knew: they were knackered from working ridiculously long hours.
We should ALL be lockdown sceptics, Sadiq
Shaun Bailey is an ambitious politician who fancies his chances of becoming Mayor of London. It’s a job with great prestige and power that can lead to even greater things. Just ask Boris Johnson.
Mr Bailey’s chances must surely have been enhanced this week by the man he’s challenging: Sadiq Khan. That was not, of course, Mr Khan’s intention when he delivered what he presumably hoped was a damaging blow in yet another war of words.
Mr Khan called Mr Bailey a ‘lockdown sceptic’. Just for the record, the dictionaries tell us a sceptic is someone who has a questioning attitude to assumed knowledge. Is there a soul in the land (perhaps excluding Mr Khan himself) who does not believe we should at least be questioning the need for a continuing lockdown?
Let’s acknowledge that lockdowns became inevitable in the early stages of the pandemic when Mr Johnson was anxious to shake everyone’s hand and our attempt at a test and trace system made the Tower of Babel look like a model of careful planning. But let’s remember, too, that our death rate is one of the highest in the world. Japan had no mandatory lockdown and its death rate is one of the lowest.
And let’s never forget the terrible cost of our lockdowns.
There’s something else too. Lockdowns tilt the power balance in a democracy from ordinary people to the rulers.
Isn’t that alone a pretty good reason to be a lockdown sceptic?