By Gareth Axenderrie
The Valleys were once the centre of the world, literally. As Britain was expanding its empire to all corners of the globe, the South Wales Valleys were the driving force. Coal was being dug from rich seams deep underground, before powering ships and trains that carried iron and steel in every direction. As natural resources were being exploited at breakneck speed, so were people. The British empire was built on the back of the labour of an exploited workforce, and via ports like Cardiff and Barry, people from across the world flocked to the work abundant Welsh coalfields.
Now, the Valleys strike a very different feel. The closure of coal mines during the 1970s and 80s has left many of these once rich and vibrant communities void of work and opportunities. Many are living beneath the poverty line, whilst some households now contain three generations of unemployment.
Politically, an area that was once a hotbed of British politics is currently rife with apathy. Despite having produced politicians like Aneurin Bevan and established the National Health Service, ‘disengagement’ is now the buzz word thrown at communities. The birth of devolution in Wales has done little to address this with voter turnout regularly well below 50%. The Assembly has introduced legislation that has gone some way toward breaking this cycle, but with a squeezed budget and the burden of inflated health spending, many of the initiatives have been mere sticking plasters.
Furthermore, many valley towns that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union last June may have in fact risked severing the last lifeline that funds any opportunity many have of rising out of the slump of post-industrial poverty.
The extent of the impact this has had on mental health was laid bare last week when Assembly Member Vikki Howells revealed that, in the town of Mountain Ash, one in three people are on anti-depressants. This staggering figure is a sad illustration of a UK wide issue, exacerbated in the Welsh Valleys, where mental health is approached with a lack of sincerity and causes are painfully under addressed.
As psychologist Jacob Williams argues, “this is indicative of the over-reliance on medical approaches to mental health which, in this example, suppress symptoms of depression but does not get to the core. In a financially constrained health care system, typified within this geographic area, antidepressants are a cheap, quick fix intervention. However, solely using pharmacology is a false economy which does not effectively break the cycle of depression for up to two-thirds of cases.”
Williams continues, “There is sound, empirical evidence base for the combined use of specific psychotherapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and anti-depressants but, those living in lower socio-economic areas are unlikely to have quick access to the most effective interventions. The area in question is a prime example of this.”
Again, Wales’ poorest areas are being neglected. Previously, they were neglected whilst being exploited for their hard labour, now it appears they’re simply being ignored, with complex issues swept under the carpet. The decent, kind, hospitable people of the South Wales Valleys drove change in the world for over two centuries. Most of that change directly benefitted Britain, and much of it is the reason we as a United Kingdom are still one of the world’s most powerful economies. These people are now at risk of sinking into a state of permanent depression. It’s time those who’ve profited from them start to take notice, and action.