By Claire Taylor

Is now the time to stir up emotions and divide our communities in the pursuit of independence?

The SNP has ramped up its efforts for another independence referendum, announcing the creation of an Independence Taskforce ahead of members gathering this week to discuss the route forward for a second referendum.

There is no denying the increasing appetite for an independent Scotland – some 18 opinion polls in a row have indicated a majority for “Yes”. The latest Savanta ComRes poll – published January 14 – found that 57% of Scots would vote “Yes” if a second independence referendum was held tomorrow, compared to 43% who would vote “No” – not including undecideds.

However, should our government not be directing all its efforts and energy into vaccine distribution and kickstarting the nation’s economic recovery, not to mention preparing for the mental health pandemic which is already unfolding. Is it not churlish to speak of huge constitutional changes which will serve only to dominate discussions and divide communities, at this time when Scotland needs to be strong and unified in its support of one another?

Amidst the difficulties of the past year, we have heard countless positive reports of individuals and whole communities who have gone above and beyond to help neighbours and complete strangers who are in isolation – a rallying effort which has not been seen since the days of war.

At a time where poor mental health has become commonplace to so many, this ‘togetherness’ has given everyone a sense of hope for the future in rebuilding our nation. But, there is a limit to Scotland’s emotional resilience. Is now the time to bring up such a divisive issue and push forward with a political dogma which could turn families, friends and communities against one another?

If we reflect back on the summer of 2014, Scotland was riding on a high from hosting the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. There was a great sense of pride felt by all – a perfect backdrop to what was to come in the Autumn.

That year I began my media career as a trainee sports reporter at those Games, but it also paved the way for a future covering politics, and it all started with the independence referendum that September.

I was part of the team organising Scotland’s biggest ever youth debate – which saw 7000 school pupils descend on Glasgow’s SSE Hydro to put their questions to policy makers. In the lead up to the debate, I spent weeks interviewing 16 and 17-year-old school pupils who had recently been given the vote and were excited to exercise their newfound democratic right for the first time.

What should have been a fantastic experience, witnessing the next generation engaged in the political process, instead flagged up deep divisions within Scottish society at the time. One conversation that has stuck with me was an interview with a 16-year-old girl who was born in Scotland to English parents and told me she was immensely proud to be Scottish but had been bullied by classmates for her accent and told she didn’t belong here. This was unfortunately a common theme throughout my interviews.

In the coming weeks we should all prepare ourselves for keyboard warriors and self-proclaimed experts from both sides of the fence which will litter our social media feeds, and if anxiety levels are running high as a result of the pandemic, let me assure you they will be triggered further still.

Although the full economic and employment impacts of Covid-19 are yet to emerge, if the looming recession is similar to that experienced after the 2008 financial crisis, the number of people of working age suffering poor mental health in the UK would rise by half a million, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

I was pleased to hear Dr Alistair Cook – the principal medical officer for mental health – address the nation during the First Minister’s Covid update last week, detailing the support on offer for those who are struggling during the current uncertainty.

The Scottish Government is under no illusion that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, a severe impact on the nation’s mental health and in response launched their ‘Transition and Recovery Plan for Mental Health’ this past October, to outline how they will respond in the months and years ahead.

Before the pandemic, public demand for mental health treatment and support was already outstripping supply. A recent freedom of information request made by the Scottish Liberal Democrats found that one in eight senior mental health roles in Scotland are vacant, and across the country 82 consultant psychiatrist roles have not been filled.

The Scottish Government is aware of these statistics and have rightly made strong commitments to addressing mental health – including increasing investment to £35 million for 800 additional mental health workers by 2021-22 – but if they are serious about tackling this ticking time bomb, then indyref2 must be placed on the back burner until Scotland regains its footing.

Even amongst independence supporters, there is recognition that such a landmark vote shouldn’t get in the way of other priorities which need addressing. That same Savanta ComRes poll which showed a majority in favour of independence also revealed that health and the economy were in the top three most important issues facing the country, with independence coming in at sixth.

Will the Scottish Government prioritise political ambition over public health at a time where Scotland’s emotional resilience is already under immense strain?

I am by no means arguing against another independence referendum further down the line, but this should be a discussion for when this great little country is no longer on its knees and facing a looming mental health pandemic.