If there is one thing I hope to see before I die, it is people suffering from mental illnesses being treated respectfully, and taken seriously. In my experience, we are still quite a long way off.

So what is a mental illness? In short, it is an illness that affects your way of thinking, mood, rationality, and daily functioning. There are endless different forms of mental illness, just as there are with physical illnesses. Unfortunately, mental and physical illnesses are traditionally treated very differently in society. There is a certain stigma surrounding mental illness that stands in the way. People are often embarrassed, nervous, and ashamed to speak about their mental illness because of this stigma. They may be worried that friends and family will see them differently, or that disclosing their illness will have a considerable effect on their careers and success. The stigma surrounding mental illnesses only makes it worse for the people having to battle this on a daily basis.

In the UK, one in four people will have to deal with a mental health problem over the course of a year, the most common being mixed anxiety and depression. Also, it is estimated that 450 million individuals suffer from a mental health problem worldwide. To put that into perspective, the population of the United States is around 318 million.

England’s largest campaign for tackling mental health stigma, Time to Change, states that nine out of ten people with a mental illness experience stigma and discrimination. Time to Change, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, aims to inspire organisations and individuals to take action by working together to battle the stigma surrounding mental illness. The campaign has achieved incredible improvements in public attitudes since it began in 2007.

With more than two million people having improved attitudes since 2011, this equates to 4.8 per cent of the general public. I spoke to Kate Nightingale, Head of Communications and Marketing at Time to Change, who says that the stigma surrounding mental health is one of the biggest issues affecting sufferers. Nightingale explains that ‘we are seeing lots more people speaking out about mental health issues, on all levels’, which is vital in tackling the stigma, but, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.

This time last month, we were loaded with information on mental health for World Mental Health Day. Everywhere we looked people were sharing stories, statistics, and articles. Although the impact of days such as this can be amazing, I can’t help but worry that once the day is over, mental health stigma will again be forgotten. As Kate Nightingale says, days such as World Mental Health Day are so important, but they also need to run alongside other campaigns – ‘we can’t just leave it up to once a year’.

Having a mental illness is something that stays with you for a long time; there are no quick and easy treatments, you often feel trapped and helpless, and recovery can be a slow and difficult process. For example, the fact that I live with anxiety disorders affects many aspects of my life, such as my studying habits, sleeping habits, and ability to concentrate or focus on tasks. Luckily, I am still able to live a fairly normal life. For others, however, the effects can be much more life-altering. Dealing with certain mental illnesses – for example, Anorexia – has a fundamental impact on your physical health, as well as your mental health. Mental illnesses often trigger thoughts of physically harming yourself, and can lead to suicide.

Unfortunately, mental illness is not something we see people speaking positively about very often, and is still in many ways a taboo. Only this weekend we saw Cheryl Fernandez-Versini use mental illness as part of a Halloween theme on the X-Factor, where she described dancers to be scary as they were styled in straitjackets whilst her act was singing the song ‘Crazy’. Adjectives such as ‘vain’, ‘attention-seeking’, ‘self-obsessed’, and ‘lazy’ are some of the opinions I have come across from my own experience of dealing with a mental illness. People often have the idea that if you have ‘nothing to be sad about’, you are not allowed to feel sad.

As a matter of fact, mental illness can and does affect people from both sexes, from many different social backgrounds, age groups and sexualities, all over the world. Kate Nightingale says ‘studies have shown that certain minority groups, such as the LGBT community, are more at risk of developing mental health problems because they are often facing multiple discrimination’. It can also be a common misconception that people who are financially stable, who haven’t necessarily suffered any specific trauma in their life, couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be depressed. However, you only have to look at examples, such as the recent loss of Robin Williams, to see that it doesn’t matter how successful you are in terms of your career when it comes to mental illness. Kate Nightingale states that with more references to mental health in the public eye, for example through MPs and sports personalities, public reactions will improve even more.

The ignorance that sometimes surrounds mental illness is not necessarily something we can blame on people who haven’t experienced it themselves. Nightingale says that because of the silence surrounding mental illness, this has led to a huge lack of understanding. She refers to mental illness as having been an ‘invisible illness’ in society, talking about how it can be difficult to fully understand what someone is experiencing, as it is not something that we can physically see. It is a difficult concept when someone appears to be completely healthy in every other sense. People with a mental illness may also put on a front to hide it and this often makes it an illness behind closed doors. This, more than anything, needs to change so that people suffering from mental illnesses can get all the support that they may need.

Kate Nightingale stated, ‘when we started our campaign, our main role was to put mental health out there in the public domain, to bust some of those myths around mental health, and to inform so people don’t feel they know nothing about it’. Encouraging people to talk about mental illness and putting it out there is absolutely vital in order to tackle mental health stigma. Mental illnesses need to be treated sooner rather than later, and, with a non-judgemental and accepting attitude, this will hopefully become something that we can talk about in the same way that we would discuss undergoing an operation for a physical injury.

Get involved:
Time to Change are running their own ‘Time to Talk Day’ on 5th February. This is so important, as work needs to be done all year round in order to bring us that one step closer to tackling the stigma. The Time to Talk Day encourages people to have a conversation lasting five minutes about mental health, and last year managed to hold over a million conversations. You can find more information through the following links –
http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/talkday
http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/talk-about-mental-health