Stigma and Discrimination in Mental Health      

Stigma and discrimination in mental health – What an enormous subject to talk about but also such   an important subject to talk about.

I will talk as somebody who has been through the mental health system and come out the other end.  I have known the best and worst of mental health care and it is a subject that I feel passionately about.  Unfortunately I often feel I cannot disclose my past to anyone.  Not because I am ashamed but because of stigma and discrimination.

It is also very poorly understood.  We live in a society where most people assume that if they are unhappy, stressed or angry there are practical steps they can take to alleviate their feelings.  When somebody is mentally ill this is not entirely the case.

But our society finds that hard to understand so we judge the mentally ill and make statements like:  “You need to pull yourself together” or “Find something you can do that you enjoy” or “Listen to some nice music and relax”.  A person with mental illness will hear many such statements and know that they are in some way being blamed for their suffering.  This in itself can make the person’s suffering increase.

Mental illness is often a very long drawn out situation.  Nobody gets depressed for just a week.

Many people who have chronic illness will start to feel they are defined by their illness.  I have felt it myself and have seen it in others where the mental illness becomes your identity.  You are the depressive or you are the schizophrenic.

When society puts the blame on you for your illness or failure to recover then the subconscious understand that your illness is your fault and an inadequacy on your behalf.  If that illness is your identity then it can easily be translated to a feeling of “I am inadequate as a person”.

Mental illness is hard to be around.  Family and friends will find you difficult, unpredictable, complicated and perhaps socially unacceptable.  There is a level of fear, the unknown is something people find frightening.  The normal way of interacting with a person will have unexpected reactions from a mentally ill person.  I can understand why my friends and family found me difficult to be around and were never quite sure of how to relate to me.

Discrimination often happens when a person appears different, they may have a different coloured skin, have a different gender, sexual orientation or religion.  Discrimination happens because many people have some anxiety or difficulty in understanding the differences.  Being different is the reason why a psychiatric patient is discriminated against.

We may have laws about discrimination, but a person with psychiatric problems cannot go to the police because they feel shunned by friends and family.  If they don’t get a job they can’t prove it was because of their illness and an employer is not likely to say that is why they have been rejected from the job they wanted.

One thing that puzzled me throughout my illness was the way many people failed to understand that I had needs that were relative to managing my illness but also had all the same needs as everyone else.

People need to have a level of self- respect and also feel respect from the people around them.  There is no reason why a mental health patient is any different.  Without the respect from others a person can find it hard to have their own self-respect.  Without self-respect why would a person feel they deserve a decent life?

Recovery from mental illness will usually require the intervention of others but it will also require the collaboration of the patient.  All too often psychiatric patents, including myself, will feel that they are not worthy of recovery and fail to collaborate in their treatment.

This government produced a document titled No Health Without Mental Health.  It outlined a number of aims for mental health care in this country, but reducing stigma and discrimination was not listed.

I do believe that we make the work of the psychiatric services very difficult when we refuse to address stigma and discrimination as something that hinders recovery.

I believe that if stigma and discrimination was to be addressed the problem of mental illness in our society could be reduced.  Figures show that 1 in 4 of us will now suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.  All of them will have friends and families who will also be affected.  Our country spends money on treatment, and at times the justice system in dealing with mental illness.  At the same time the country is supporting people who are left unable to work.  Mental illness is frightening and painful for the patient and can impact on physical health.  It would pay everyone if we could do our best to help people recover.

I believe that there needs to be a task force set up to examine stigma and discrimination and find the steps we could take to reduce it.   Survivors of the mental health system, relatives and friends of sufferers and mental health professionals would all be needed to work alongside any politicians if such a group was set up.

I have spoken to many people about the subject of stigma and discrimination in mental health and found it astonishing how little people can understand without having experienced it.  This is why I feel it is imperative for people who have been through mental illness or been around mental illness to be involved in finding a solution in this country.