One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with anxiety and depression the most common disorders.
These statistics from the National Centre for Social Research raise important equality and accessibility questions for all service providers, not least train operating companies (TOCs).
Empowering disabled people to use the railways has long been on the radar of TOCs, but campaigners point to an historic disparity whereby mental health has not received the same level of attention as physical disability.
Indeed, this was the message to delegates at the first ever Mental Health and Transport Summit, sponsored by the Department for Transport (DfT) and which took place in London in February.
Because using public transport can often be a stressful and bewildering task at the best of times, Transport Minister Andrew Jones’ keynote speech was warmly welcomed - it called on TOCs to play catch-up by bringing down the barriers that prevent those who experience anxiety, depression and panic attacks from accessing the rail network.
“We didn’t really know what to expect on the day, but we were very pleased with the turnout and the level of engagement,” says Laura Whitehurst, partnerships manager at Anxiety UK, which co-organised the summit with Derby-based charity Mental Health Action Group (MHAG).
“Other mental health charities aren’t necessarily covering this issue, and we saw a huge gap. Plus the amount of service users contacting us on a daily basis saying how isolated they are because they can’t use public transport is overwhelming, so we saw a desperate need to address the issue.”
More than 100 delegates representing all forms of public transport were invited to attend the summit, after taking part in a survey conducted by MHAG last year. The survey found that although the appetite to improve provisions for those with mental health difficulties is strong, existing knowledge within the industry falls a long way behind, hindering attempts to make services more accessible to this large demographic.
“Overwhelmingly, most people said they’d had absolutely no training, which is crucial to helping people understand what the issues are,” says Whitehurst.
“The event managed to open people’s eyes to how ridiculous the situation is. Delegates were asked to pledge what their organisations are going to do over the next year, which we are collating to produce a report for the DfT to use in its forthcoming accessibility action plan.”
As someone who has herself experienced anxiety and depression for several years, Whitehurst is well placed to highlight the inadequacy of current customer care within the rail industry, and how simple and inexpensive measures can be put in place to tackle the problem.
Her personal testimony, she says, is typical of thousands of other people whose reluctance to use public transport is entirely avoidable.
“If you don’t receive the right assistance when on a train or a bus, and you have a panic attack, it’s easy to associate the panic attack with the mode of transport. If you are not assisted by sympathetic staff then it could prevent you from using public transport in future.
“Anxiety can leave people quite confused and overwhelmed at a busy station, and being able to find someone and tell them that they’re struggling with a disorder is often what they need. People tell us that staff are often unhelpful or unwilling to assist them, whereas someone in a wheelchair would most likely be taken to the train.
“In my talk at the summit I gave an example of when I was at an airport, which can be quite frightening places when they are busy and have long queues. I got in touch with their disability team who could only offer me the use of a wheelchair, which wasn’t really the most appropriate solution for my condition. Only 8% of people who consider themselves disabled actually use a wheelchair, so it makes no sense to me to have that as the default response for every disability.
“The solution really was to offer the exact same as for people in wheelchairs, but minus the wheelchair. Letting people go into priority lanes and allowing them to embark first or last are the things that (ultimately) would really help someone with anxiety have the assistance they need.”
Whitehurst adds: “I recently interviewed someone from one of the largest TOCs for our quarterly magazine. I asked her if she would recommend that someone who has panic attacks should speak to a member of staff on the platform before they board a train, to make them aware.
“Her response was: ‘No, we would strongly encourage them not to get on the train because it’s really costly for us to make unscheduled stops,’ which is absolutely shocking. You wouldn’t say that to someone with asthma or epilepsy who feared an attack, and it would be extreme discrimination to prevent someone boarding because they feared having a panic attack.”