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Mental health 'coming out of the closet'

Mental health 'coming out of the closet'

Mind | Mind

6 min read Member content

"We are at the beginning of a generational change." Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change, has seen the latest results of a national survey measuring public attitudes in England towards mental illness.

“It is the best news we have had since Time to Change began in 2007 - we have seen the biggest positive improvement in the last 20 years.

“We have seen a lot of change, but last year was a really key year. The data shows a significant change - the momentum that has been built over decades is beginning to pay off. That is really positive.”

Time to Change is an anti-stigma campaign run by Mindand Rethink Mental Illness. Baker sketches out the scale of the issue.

The national survey measuring public attitudes in England towards mental illness has been commissioned since 1993.

The results of the 2013 survey found more than two million people's attitudes towards people with mental health problems have improved to a greater level than seen before.

88% of people said they would be willing to “continue a relationship with a friend with a mental health problem”, up from 82%.

76% said they would be willing to work with someone who has a mental health problem, and 62% would be willing to live with someone with a mental health problem.

Only 10% of people agreed that people with a mental illness should not be given any responsibility. That figure was 15% in 2008.

92% of people now agree that virtually anyone can become mentally ill. 89% of people agreed in 2008.

79% of respondents now acknowledge that people with a mental illness have for too long been the subject of ridicule. 75% agreed in 2008.

Baker calls Time to Change “a really big movement which is making mental health a very visible issue, and one of the keys to what we are seeing is that more of us with mental health problems are openly talking about it and shifting the way people treat us.

“We want to end discrimination and to improve individual behaviour.”
There is a particular focus in Time to Change on working with employers, a very common area of discrimination.

“Sadly people do face discrimination in the workplace and generally do not get enough support,” Baker explains.

“If you have an episode or develop a mental health issue - like one in six British workers - what level of support is there to get you back into work and how do you create a climate where people can talk openly?

“It is so important to change the culture. Time to Change works with employers and runs workshops and ‘health checks’. We offer a free consultancy and we work very intensely with them and a vast range of organisations have signed up.

“High street banks, M&S, universities, energy suppliers.”

But Baker stresses that at heart, Time to Change is about “thousands of people speaking out to change public perception and behaviour”.

In the same way that LGBT people choosing to ‘come out of the closet’ has changed perceptions about the gay community, the visibility of people with a mental health issue at work and in families is key to challenging stigma.

“In the early days of the campaign we wanted to bust myths, such as, we don’t work or get better or can’t be good parents,” says Baker.

“We work with over 200 employers who have signed an organisational pledge showing their commitment to tackling mental health discrimination in the workplace. As part of the pledge they have an action plan to change policy practice and internal comms.

“That is double the number we were expecting at this stage which is really encouraging.

“Our evaluation shows 15% increase in disclosure among their employees – they themselves have then set up their own internal campaigns and lead the culture change within the organisation.

“In the Home Office for example they established a support group for people with mental health problems. It is a really positive way of changing that idea that we can’t get better or that we don’t work.

“It is the invisible side of mental health - you can’t tell unless people speak openly about it. One of the things we looked at was the examples from other anti-discrimination work.

“One of the models is social contact – mixing people together – that works in employment, breaking down the barriers. It is in some ways a similar approach to LGBT issues.”

As with the gay community, language and the way in which issues are reported by the press is key to challenging stigma.

The recent death of actor Robin Williams was a test for the press. Would they listen to Time for Change, The Samaritans and others and in Baker’s words, “avoid shame and blame”?

The phrase to “commit suicide” for example is redolent of the time when suicide was a criminal offence.

“Taking or ending their life is more appropriate,” says Baker.

“It is a further tragedy that it takes high-profile losses to put attention back on mental health. The outcome of increased attention is that we get the opportunity to raise awareness of how common depression and other mental health issue are. That helps people as it is a common experience

“What we wanted to get over was that it is tragic that 6,000 people a year took their lives in the UK and we really want to get the message of hope and recovery.

“A high-profile suicide can leave people feeling more vulnerable - we want people to hear there is help out there and you can recover from and cope with depression and severe depression.

“It’s really important that people know where to get help. You can get through the most extreme suicidal feelings and we want people to make contact with a GP or a helpline.”

The concepts of parity of esteem and parity of funding between mental and physical health is now on the agenda at Westminster and in Whitehall, itself a tribute to the work of groups like Time to Change.

Baker talks about the “institutionalisation of stigma - mental health has the poor relation for so many decades”.

“We have a more positive platform and attitudes are starting to change - it is a common everyday health issue.

“We are getting the right messages from politicians on proper resourcing but we have a huge way to go. We recognise the history of having poor attitudes to mental health has had an impact on the availability of resource. But a very significant change is happening - the momentum that has been built over decades is beginning to pay off – that is really positive.”

Both Mindand Rethink Mental Illness have issued their manifestos ahead of the general election, alongside other mental health policy groups.

Baker says government must continue to fund work to tackle stigma and discrimination.

“That means giving us at Time to Change a future - our funds run out in March. What we want is a significant continued investment.

“This work affects millions of people - a quarter of the population directly and the rest indirectly. We want a proportionate investment in mental health and maximum waiting times too.

“Our work at Time to Change is a collective achievement - we have a high visible campaign and worked for years to create a newly confident movement.

“That really made us much more confident to challenge negative incidences that fuel stigma and our movement really started to flex its muscles and other groups and people around the country.

“Finally we can push social norms where they won’t revert back in a few years.”

Read the most recent article written by Mind - In Parliament

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