HOLMSEY: Poor mental health is the new ‘bad back’

I stumbled across some lovely old episodes of ITV’s Coronation Street on YouTube. Snooty Annie Walker ran the Rovers Return, Bet Lynch and Betty Turpin served behind the bar. Alf Roberts had the little corner shop; Rita and Mavis were marking up papers. In the episode I saw, a taxi driver stayed overnight at Elsie Tanner’s. In the morning, someone spotted his cab parked around the corner, which set the street buzzing with gossip!

Back then everyone popped into the Rovers at lunchtime and went back again after work. How did they afford it? I loved Hilda Ogden’s wall ‘muriel’ and her flying ducks. Binman Eddie Yates – our much-missed Geoff Hughes – was Hilda’s lodger, and remember Stan, the workshy window cleaner? He rarely had any money for housekeeping – but always managed a pint or two in the Rovers. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, everyone knew someone like Stan, usually they had the same excuse for not working, ‘It’s me back,’ they cried!

More than one in five people of working age are not actively looking for work. Very few are signed off with bad backs now; ‘mental health’ has taken over as the number one cause, and like backs, there’s no way of proving the degree of disability. Get an appointment with a doctor, self-diagnose poor mental health and, voila, you’re signed off.

Having suffered myself, I have sympathy for people with depression. But anxiety is a normal part of the human condition. With the support of family and friends, many of us learn to manage it. If you can’t get help, it seems you’re more likely to give up on life, and that includes work.

Difficulties with relationships, jobs, money and housing all come under the catch all ‘mental health’, and it has gone too far, says work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride. Astonishingly, he says the annual cost of looking after working-age people who don’t work will rise from £60 billion to £90 billion over the next three years. It’s another thing the government has allowed to spiral out of control, and I suspect those long NHS waiting lists are playing their part too.

Working-age mothers who can’t find or afford childcare are included, as are early retirees. As for the other causes, who knows, but people are far less tolerant these days. Maybe they won’t go to work because they want to avoid interacting with other people.

Last week, every news media outlet reported another 500 migrants crossing the channel in a single day. Rishi’s ‘stop the boats’ pledge is a miserable failure. But the cost of the immigration crisis pales into insignificance when compared to the cost of supporting people who could work but don’t. Like Channel refugees, people opting out need everyone else to finance their housing, food, healthcare and old age. Without doubt, I’m sure, a majority have genuine reasons, but for others, mixing with other people and being useful to society could improve their wellbeing.

Currently most employers need more staff, so if you don’t have a job, it’s probable you really don’t want one. If you know someone who isn’t working, to reduce the pressure on those of us who are, why not gently encourage them to return? Britain is the only G7 country that hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of employment, and two million claim to have ‘long Covid.’

Worryingly, more people in their teens and twenties are off work long-term than any other age group, and numbers are still rising. Unless, that is, reversed, it will become a much worse economic problem than older people leaving work early.

Shorter NHS waiting lists, therapy, more childcare and a new government could help, but I’m certain there’s a lot more to the problem than that. Quite literally – Britain isn’t working.