Do you think you’re prejudiced? What would you think if I told you I was 24, female and studying for my PhD?
Does your opinion of me change when you find out I have a mental health problem?
1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer from a mental health problem at some time in their lives, and yet there is still a huge amount of stigma associated with this form of illness. The passing of the Mental Health Discrimination Act on the 28th February, 2013 has brought the topic of mental health stigma once again to the forefront of mental health debate.
Many people still see having a mental health problem as a sign of personal weakness, or that the sufferers are dangerous people. These beliefs were translated into laws which discriminated against those with mental health problems. The Mental Health Discrimination Act abolished these outdated laws that stated members of the house of commons could be automatically removed from their seat if they were sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months, removed the total ban on ‘mentally disordered persons’ undertaking jury service and upended legislation which stopped persons from being a director of a public or private company “by reason of their mental health”.
The battle to recover from a health problem is, for the most part, an internal and personal one. For example, only I can truly understand why I get upset and panicky about ‘irrational’ matters; one person’s minor annoying molehill is another persons’ anxiety-ridden mountain.
I have been taught the skills I need to eliminate my anxious thoughts using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT); this is form of talking-therapy where one identifies the triggers and ‘unhealthy’ thought processes that can lead to feeling unwell and teaches you how to overcome them. I also take anti-depressants to help keep my mood positive, and I take beta blockers (medication used to slow the heart rate) when I need a bit of extra help to calm down. However, none of this would help half as much if I didn’t have my family and friends supporting me, it makes dealing with my problems much, much easier to cope with. I know I can open up and talk to my partner about feeling upset because of something that is objectively not stressful and he will listen without judging me.
Unfortunately, not everyone with mental health problems has this kind of support. Many people have no-one to talk to, or are made to feel weak if they open up about how they’re really feeling. This is a huge problem, because the stigma which surrounds mental illness can be one of the biggest hindrances to patient recovery. If the general public are educated about the best and worst ways to approach and discuss mental health problems, it could make a huge difference to those who suffer from them.
I am fortunate that I made the first step and actually went to see my doctor about how I was feeling. This lead me to treatment, and I am really happy to say I am well on the way to recovery (though I do still have the odd meltdown about burnt food and dishwashers I have forgotten to unload). However, if people continue to endorse a negative view of mental illness, many will suffer in silence and refrain from seeking help altogether, for fear of being labelled as ‘mental’ or ‘crazy’.
Mental Health charity ‘Time to Change’ run a campaign called ‘Time to Talk’, which is endorsed by celebrities such as Steven Fry and Frankie Sandford of ‘The Saturdays’. This fantastic campaign encourages members of the public to openly discuss mental illness. It’s their hope that once a frank and honest dialogue has begun, mental illness won’t be seen as such a ‘taboo’ subject, and in time social stigma will diminish.
Mental health problems don’t have to be scary to talk about. As stated before, 1 in 4 of us suffer from them, so it should be a much more commonly addressed issue. Simply saying ‘How are you?’ can be enough. Showing you care and are available to talk can be all suffers need…it can get a bit boring chatting about nothing but mental health issues, but its nice to know someone is open to the conversation should it arise.
The passing of the Mental Health Discrimination Act is a fantastic step in the right direction to ending mental health stigma, but we still need to educate the general public if these stigmatising beliefs are to be removed from general conversation.