Tackling The Stigma Of Mental Illness

by Penny Boreham

Removing the Stigma Of Mental Illness

Advert for the Time To Change Campaign

Mental health is no different from physical health in that early intervention is crucial. However, it is still sadly true that the stigma around mental health problems makes people reluctant to come forward and seek help. Organisations, like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, are working hard to overturn stereotypes of mental illness and the mentally ill, in order to remove this stigma and encourage people to talk more openly.

Our own managing director, Benjamin Fry, writes openly about his own nervous breakdown and the steps he he has taken to transform his life. This is with the express intention of helping to remove the stigma around mental illness which was something he felt keenly when he was ill. Benjamin describes this journey in his book, “How I F***** Up My Life And Made It Mean Something”.

The way mental health is perceived publicly has a profound effect on how individual people with mental health problems perceive themselves and their illness. If those with mental illness stay silent and don’t seek help soon enough it can prolong their illness, make recovery more difficult, and put them at increased risk of reaching a crisis.

Perceptions Of Violence And Mental Illness

One example of this is the perception about the link between mental illness and violence. Violent acts by people with mental health problems are comparatively rare and yet media reporting of homicides by those with mental health problems creates the impression that this is common place.

Self Stigma

The idea that being mentally unwell is linked to violence is so widespread that those with mental health disorders themselves sometimes believe themselves to be violent, as a result. This is ‘self-stigma’ and can have an impact on the way people manage their mental health condition and view themselves. Mind, together with Rethink Mental Illnesses, runs the anti stigma campaign entitled Time To Change. It was launched in 2009. They reported that a woman, who attended one of their events last year, said that when she was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder one of her early thoughts was that she should not have children because she ‘must be violent’. She had not had any violent thoughts or done anything to hurt anybody so this perception was gleaned from the negative perceptions she was experiencing, largely from the press.

Physical Symptoms Often Ignored

There is also evidence that General Practitioners can tend to ignore the physical symptoms of someone showing mental health symptoms, assuming these physical symptoms are ‘made up’ or ‘imagined’. There are somatic manifestations of mental health issues and vice versa, but it seems that many General Practitioners are not well versed about this and can jump to conclusions and dismiss physical symptoms of those with mental health issues.

The Public, Profile Of Mental Health Is Changing

However there is no question that there are exciting changes occurring in the public profile of mental health, with lots of positive signs that attitudes are changing. In popular culture, we are seeing the more accurate use of mental health as a subject for documentaries and drama scripts, and soap story lines. MPs have spoken out in parliament about mental health, and there are new initiatives being set up like ‘Time to Change’, which is passionate about “starting a conversation or thousands of conversations” about mental health.

Stereotyping Mental Health Patients

There was an outcry when Asda and Tesco sold ‘mental patients’ Halloween costumes in the Autumn and when the resort Thorpe Park had a Halloween-themed ‘Asylum’ attraction, in which actors dressed as ‘mental patients’ chased visitors through a maze. The fact there was an outcry is significant. Apparently, thousands wrote to complain to Thorpe Park about the ‘attraction’. Also, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Lancet, Mind and others wrote an open letter to the management of Thorpe Park explaining why people would find it offensive. There was also a readiness to accept the blame, from Asda and Tesco, and although Thorpe Park defended themselves partly by saying they had been running this ‘attraction’ for years, this revealed that in those intervening years a growing awareness had developed that this stereotyping is unacceptable.

Creating Contact and Making Connections

There are many people and organisations, like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, who are working hard to overturn stereotypical portrayals of those with mental health problems. They recognise that we need to be sure that we don’t just hear from professionals, speaking on behalf of those they treat, but from those who have experienced, and are experiencing mental illness. Stephen Fry, is the president of Mind and has frequently spoken out about his mental health issues. As I pointed out at the beginning of this blog our managing director, Benjamin Fry (no relation!) has written extensively about his own severe nervous breakdown and his struggle to find the treatment that transformed his life. It was this struggle and commitment to the therapies that had transformed his life that ultimately led to him found Khiron House, in order to allow others to access them.

Being Open About Mental Illness

Openness is crucial. The ‘Time To Change’ campaign concentrates on creating contact with those who are open about their mental health problems. People speaking out like this will also encourage others to come forward with their mental health issues. It is estimated that one in four of us suffers from some kind of mental health issue. Early diagnosis means that people can access treatment, and support, before these illnesses become harder to manage. It will also mean we can live in a society where stigma and self stigma ceases to paralyse us all.

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