Paul Burstow MP writes: Mental health – changing attitudes, tackling stigma

Paul Burstow visits Duke McKenzie's

At our party conference in Birmingham, I was asked the question; “what issues can we campaign on at the next general election?” Given that this was during the health Bill Q&A session, I imagine most people in the audience expected me to focus on NHS reform. Instead I talked about mental health, and in particular our party’s long standing campaign for parity of esteem between mental and physical health. There are many obstacles to overcome but we are making progress through our Strategy No Health without Mental Health and our plans to provide £400million for talking therapies.

But one area that is often overlooked is the issue of stigma. And for many people with mental health issues, it’s the problem of stigma that is hardest to overcome.

Mental health is an issue that affects us all. One in four of us will experience some form of mental health problem and many more of us are indirectly, yet often profoundly, affected as friends or family members. But what we don’t often realise is how the daily lives of many people with mental health problems are blighted by the prejudice, ignorance and fear that surround them.

A recent survey revealed that 60 per cent of people with mental health problems say that the stigma and discrimination they face is equally or more damaging and distressing than the symptoms of the illness itself. Even more worryingly, 27 per cent of people in the same survey also reported that the stigma they have faced has made them want to give up on life.

Time to Change is an anti-stigma campaign run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness that works to change attitudes and behaviours on a mass scale, helping empower individuals to tackle discrimination across all sectors and communities. Since it was set up in 2007, it has reached over 34 million members of the English public in its first four years and built a social movement of over 85,000 people as well as organisations across all sectors. Now, for the first time ever, this long standing campaign has received Government funding of up to £16 million, along with a second grant of £4 million awarded by Comic Relief. This funding will help Time to Change continue their work until March 2015. And it will also allow them to help test new approaches to tackling mental health stigma and discrimination among children and young people, and specific work with the BME communities, starting with the African Caribbean community.

Last week I went to see how the campaign works in practice by visiting Duke Mckenzie’s gym in Crystal Palace. Many of the young people who go to Duke’s went with low confidence having never had the chance to talk to others in an open environment. Even from the short space of time I was there, I was able to see just how this scheme helps boost self-confidence; whilst also enabling the people at the gym get to see that people with mental health problems are no different to the rest of us. But Duke’s gym isn’t a one off. In the South West Time to Change have helped set up ‘Tea and Talk’ sessions in local businesses to challenge some of the myths surrounding mental health problems in the workplace. In the North West, they’ve helped run schemes in football and rugby clubs to get people with mental health problems involved in mainstream sport and build their confidence. And in the North East, they’ve set up competitions in local colleges for students to make films about mental discrimination.

Of course there are many more fantastic examples across the country. But what each local campaign demonstrates is how the Time to Change campaign underpins the new mental health strategy that Nick Clegg and I launched earlier this year. The very basic, but powerful idea of giving mental health the same priority as physical health. We’ve got some way to go to achieve this. But come 2015, we’ll be able to tell people on the door step that we’ve done more than any Government ever has done to achieve this goal.

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  • Another way to tackle the stigma is to talk to the medical consultants about the possibility of neurology and pyschiatry being reunited as one discipline. When I’ve talked to consultant pyschiatrists for my work they have often lamented the divide between the two areas. We now know for instance that many mental health problems are physical processes that can be seen in MRI scans, for example. We are also beginning to see for schizophrenia that upbringing has only a minute role causing schizophrenia, but for decades mothers have been stigmatized, without evidence. Research is leading the way on this with the rise of neuropyschiatry institutes. Could medics also play a role?

  • Clare Mills 20th Oct '11 - 9:16am

    The more we can do to tackle stigma about mental illness, the better – my own approach is to be “out an d proud” about my stay in a mental hospital and my continuing need, ten years on, for medication. Despite my illness I have completed a PhD, served as a local councillor, looked after my family and work for an MP. Anyone can have a mental illness.
    I know this approach is not possible for everyone, and I know some people prefer to keep health concerns private, and that’s fine. But I’m going to carry on making sure people know that mental illness is an ILLNESS, not a sign of someone being weak, or intellectually or emotionally lacking.
    Thanks to Paul Burstow for helping the Time to Change campaign.

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