Manchester clinic urges action to stop people with mental health issues being burdened by stigma and discrimination
Posted Tuesday, October 23, 2012 – 10:46
By Henry Vaughan
An alarming number of people will experience mental health problems in the course of a year, according to statistics from the Mental Health Foundation, so it is perhaps surprising that attitudes that stigmatise and discriminate are still so common.
An international study published in the Lancet last week discovered that more than three quarters of people who suffer from depression experience discrimination in at least one area of their life.
The cross-sectional study, which interviewed 1082 people in 35 countries, found that the stigma associated with mental health issues affected personal relationships, work and education as well as acting as a barrier to seeking help and receiving treatment.
Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust Medical Director Dr Sean Lennon said: “This research shows that while progress has been made in recent years, there is still much to do in terms of breaking down the stigma attached to mental illness.
“What is of most concern is that the study suggests that people are avoiding seeking treatment for mental illness because of fear of discrimination. This makes treating and caring for people harder, as early diagnosis is vital with many conditions.”
Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma programme, run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, said: “Sadly this study doesn’t tell us anything surprising, but it does show that despite improvements in England since Time to Change began, there is still a long way to go until everyone with a mental health problem can live life free from stigma and discrimination.
“It’s a tragedy that despite mental health problems being incredibly common, many people still feel the need to hide them.
“This prevents people from seeking help, and from having full and active lives making use of their skills and talents.”
Catherine Skelton, 30, from Blackley, who has bipolar disorder, and has also worked in the mental health profession, spoke to MM about coping with mental illness.
She has personal experience of being mocked, taunted and verbally abused by people in her local area after spending time in hospital, and has seen others subjected to abuse when taking them out as part of her support work.
Personal relationships have often been fraught as some family members avoided her, and she has lost friends and partners after they became aware of her mental health issues.
Ms Skelton said: “At first I hid things and I didn’t tell anyone about it and then as time went on and I did mental health support work, I got to know who they are as people rather than for their mental health condition.
“It started to make me think I’m not going to be embarrassed anymore. I’m going to start being open with people and if they don’t want to accept me for who I am that’s their problem.”
Ms Skelton also feels that her mental health issues have harmed her chances of getting work, or holding on to it, with employers reluctant to take her on after her disclosure of mental illness at interview, or facing dismissal because of behaviours associated with her health.
But after receiving treatment, she now teaches courses as part of the Recovery Education initiative run by Manchester Mental health and Social Care Trust, where former and current service users along with staff share their stories to raise awareness, break down barriers and learn from each other about recovery and mental health.
She has also written a book about the mental health experience called ‘Cathy’s Story – My Journey so Far’, and hopes that her voluntary work will help her to find paid work, but still feels that her family don’t understand.
Ms Skelton added: “My family members weren’t interested, they are blind to it and they blocked that part out.”
She welcomed the growing number of celebrities who have spoken out about their mental health issues, but felt that it was important for more ordinary people, who have been successful in their lives, to come forward to share how they have coped, and to pass on techniques to others.
Dr Lennon said: “We will not change attitudes overnight, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.”
He explained that good work is being done in spreading the right message to the public.
Ms Baker added: “Time to Change is working in partnership with people with mental health problems and a wide range of organisations and employers.
“Our campaign focuses on changing the attitudes and behaviour of those close to people with mental health problems, alongside work to empower people with mental health problems to speak out about it.
“The evidence we have shows this to be working, but we have generations of stigma and prejudice to overturn.”
Asked about what advice she would give to anyone worried about seeking help, Ms Skelton said: “Sometimes it’s better to be more open and honest and it actually gets you that bit further.”