How to Win the Battle Between Stigma and Mental Health

Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year (MIND), yet despite it being so prevalent, about 90% of those with mental health problems report having to face some form of stigma – whether that’s from their friends and family, work, education or during treatment (Time to Change). Laura writes about a talk she attended, which discussed whether the methods we’re currently using to tackle this issue are actually working.

 


 

 

A couple of weeks ago I attended a very insightful talk and panel discussion at the IoPPN called “Fighting Stigma in Mental Health – and losing” by Professor Anthony David. Despite what the title might suggest, the talk was about how we’re currently winning the battle and how we can further improve.

“The talk identified three main ways we’ve been successful in reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems; education, promoting contact, and activism.”

We’ve come a long way when it comes to the public’s views on mental health. Some of the statistics mentioned during the panel discussion were that attitudes towards those with mental illnesses have improved by 9.6% and are continuing to change for the better. Discrimination has receded by 15% and for the first time ever recorded, there are now more anti-discrimination pieces published in the media than there are negative ones. Although these are small numbers, they show how the efforts of organisations like Time to Change and Heads Together are making an impact, causing stigma to gradually start decreasing.

The talk identified three main ways we’ve been successful in reducing the stigma associated with mental health problems; education, promoting contact, and activism.

  1. Education

People often fear what they don’t understand. By educating people and challenging the misconceptions for various disorders with facts, fewer people now have a negative view towards those with mental illnesses. Mental health charities have had a massive role in increasing awareness and imparting knowledge, with campaigns like Time to Talk Day and World Mental Health Day which get the public talking about mental health problems and help break the stigma.

  1. Promote contact/proximity

Studies show that one of the best ways to challenge stereotypes and help reduce prejudice are events that encourage social contact between individuals with and without mental disorders. This encourages positive inter-group contact, which improves people’s attitudes towards mental health. This then helps to increase future willingness to disclose mental health problems and promote behaviours which are linked with anti-stigma engagement (see relevant issue at the British Journal of Psychiatry).

  1. Activism

Charities and organisations that fight for the human rights of individuals with mental health problems help ensure they have an equal standing in society, with access to the same opportunities as everyone else. For example, in 2013 the Mental Health Discrimination Act was signed into law. This means those with mental health problems can now serve on jury duty or be eligible to be elected an MP, and company directors are no longer allowed to be removed just because they have a mental illness.

A lot has been done in fighting stigma in mental health, however we still have a long way to go. So much still needs to be done to address the heavy prejudice against mental health in some Minority Ethnic communities. Also, less talked-about problems, such as psychotic disorders, are still perceived in a negative way, especially in the media with words like crazy or psycho often used with no regards for how damaging they can be.

“talking is something, but a poor substitute for action or policy”

But one of the main things we need to work on is improving the availability of services for those who need it. This was a key point stressed throughout the talk: talking is something, but a poor substitute for action or policy. Unfortunately, as was pointed out at the panel discussion, it seems that the success and progress being made in the battle against stigma (mainly by mental health NGOs) is sometimes being used by policy makers to get away with not actually changing policies and improving services. This really struck me and made me realize that fighting stigma in mental health goes hand in hand with providing services and support for individuals with mental health problems as equally valued members of society.