Historically there have always been issues in society that the government won’t touch with a bargepole, resulting in cautious, sometimes oppressive approaches from the public, leaving interest groups and social movements to pick up the mess. We’ve seen it with women’s rights, racial equality and most recently an interest for gay rights.
Fortunately for us, once these movements gain enough support, the government starts to listen and to slowly tackle the issues in their policies. This helps trigger a higher social acceptance level in our society. I believe and hope that next on the agenda the stigma surrounding mental health will be tackled. This article will focus on the more common mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, obsessive compulsive disorders etc. Yet this by no means takes away the importance of tackling the more ‘severe’ disorders both medically and socially.
There have been some fantastic advancements in treating mental health with the medical acceptance of treatments such as CBT, mindfulness and community based support groups. This compared to untested treatments decades ago where doctors would throw newly discovered pills at you and tell you to move to the country for a while. So clearly improvements have been made, in regards to how we approach these issues from a medical perspective at least. Yet the stigma that comes with mental illnesses is still a force to be reckoned with.
There have been some positive steps in the way in which the public view people with mental illnesses and how secure those with these illnesses feel in opening up. For example, the number of people who would feel comfortable talking to their employer about their mental health has increased from 43% in 2010 to 50% in 2011. While the percentage of people agreeing that mental illness is an illness like any other has risen from 71% in 1994 to 77% in 2011. It is easy to look at these figures and think great improvements have been made, which is the case no doubt, but in the twenty-first century are these numbers really high enough? Considering that one in four people deal with some aspect of mental illness you would think it would be more of an open topic.
Worryingly 9 out of 10 people with mental health issues reported the negative impact of stigma and discrimination in their lives according to a report from Time to Change, the anti-stigma and discrimination programme. This stigma is a contributor to many people not reaching out for help in the fear of shame and embarrassment, with up to 75% of Americans and Europeans forgoing treatments. Personally I feel these statistics are alarming enough to at least warrant some level of desire to make a change in society.
One way in which I believe the stigma that comes with mental health can be tackled is through schooling. Most of us had PSHE or similar classes in secondary school where we looked at drugs, sex, the government and areas of mental health. In my school this class was seen as a doss lesson where you would just have a chat with your friends and I’m fairly sure that is the case for most schools. We should however, really be exploring and learning about mental health from a younger age. No child is born a racist, a sexist, a homophobe; it is only society that shapes these ideas and this is the same with the stigma concerning mental health. Therefore if we learn and understand mental health from a young age, future generations are far more likely to be accepting of it.
Another powerful method to help change public opinion is through influential figures. It’s safe to say politicians do not have the same effect over the public as they used to, at least not in a positive way. Rather, celebrities have now become the mind shapers of society. There are some high profile celebrities who have spoken openly about the issues of mental health such as Stephen Fry, Davina McCall and Gary Lineker. Yet if there was to be a ‘super-group’ of celebrities who created a campaign or joined in with Mental Health Awareness Week, promoting it on TV, Twitter, Youtube etc. I truly believe a difference would be made.
There is no doubt that the issue of mental health and the stigma associated with it needs to be tackled. The amount of people dealing with more common illnesses such as anxiety and depression is growing with our increasingly reclusive lifestyles, partly helped by our dependency on technology. As much as the rising number of people facing these issues is a difficult concept to accept, it should hopefully mean we will see more and more awareness campaigning and eventually social acceptance of mental health illnesses.