New findings from Time to Change Wales’ stigma survey reveals an increase in self-stigma amongst those suffering with mental health issues since government restrictions were introduced for the coronavirus pandemic.

In May 2020, Time to Change Wales surveyed over 100 individuals with lived experience of mental health issues from across Wales. The survey found that self-stigma presents a significant challenge to people experiencing a mental health problem with 54% of respondents saying that it has worsened since lockdown began. 

Gavin, 40 from Pontyclun, suffers from depression and recently realised he was experiencing self-stigma during lockdown. He said: “I’ve spoken out about my depression and written about it at length on my blog, but it all fell by the wayside some years ago. I felt that as more and more celebrities spoke out about their own mental health struggles, the voice of a ‘normal’ guy like me became irrelevant. I felt like no one was really interested in the day-to-day lives of those of us living with and managing severe mental illness. Now, having thought about it over the last few days, I’ve realised that this is a perfect example of self-stigma.

Self-stigma, paired with anxiety that naturally comes with the COVID-19 lockdown, made me battle harder than usual on a fair few days, mainly to keep everything together for my family.”

Jessica, 24 from Bridgend, who has borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia and depression, expressed how lockdown has affected her mental health care plan: “Lockdown undermined my ability to function at home and at work, stealing my care plan. All of the things that I needed to do and access in order to stay mentally stable and avoid hospital admissions were taken away from me. I was not able to contact my Community Mental Health Team for the first 6 to 8 weeks of lockdown, which was a struggle because I needed consistent professional support in order to help me stay well. I felt like I had been forgotten about.”

The survey also uncovered that 1 in 5 of people have experienced mental health stigma from either a family member, partner or a household member during lockdown. Jessica went on to say: “I wanted to keep a brave face for my family because they had enough to worry about without my mental health deteriorating. I felt like my voice was being stifled. Those around me said that the last thing they needed was for me to become unwell. As incredible as my family are, they don’t understand my mental illnesses, so I feel like I have to try and hide my bad days from them.”

Bethan, 32 from Caerphilly, who has borderline personality disorder, experienced mental health stigma whilst reaching out for support during lockdown: “I, like so many other people, have been stuck in diet culture, trying any way possible to lose weight. As part of my borderline personality disorder, I get quite obsessed about things and for the past two years it’s been with my weight and how I look. When I felt down about my appearance, I would binge eat and then feel even worse. I would use unhealthy ways of getting rid of food which would then make feel better. But soon enough, I would feel, binge eat, and the vicious cycle would continue.

I was referred to a Community Mental Health Team about my binge eating during lockdown and was assessed over the phone. It took about 40 minutes and from that, I felt hopeful of help. As the weeks went by, I still had no call back, so I decided to ring them myself. The person who answered the phone was rude and impatient, and when I asked what the result was for the assessment they said, ‘You’re a healthy weight, you’re not starving yourself and you’re not endangering your life so you’re not eligible for further care.’ I felt so silly for asking for help in the first place and was upset that no one thought my problem was serious enough to warrant help. Admitting to what I was doing was so hard in the first place and now I felt like the people who could help were refusing to. I soon realised that this was a very bad case of mental health stigma.”

The survey found that 22% of respondents felt stigmatised for their poor mental health in employment during the COVID-19 restrictions. When placing this alongside the anticipated tough economic climate as a result of COVID-19, more needs to be done to improve workplace environments and support the mental wellbeing of staff as businesses prepare their staff to return to the workplace.

The workplace is consistently reported to us as one of the key areas where stigma is most commonly experienced and where it is most harmful. One anonymous respondent said: “Workload has increased with less opportunity to meet others.” This highlights that people may be struggling to cope but with little opportunity to talk about it.

Lowri Wyn Jones, Time to Change Wales Programme Manager said: “Mental health stigma and discrimination are not likely to go away in the course of Wales’ recovery from the pandemic. In fact, the pandemic can further exacerbate experience of stigma and self-stigma so it’s more important than ever for Time to Change Wales to continue supporting Champions, communities and employers to challenge stigma and to create a culture of change so that people can access the support they need, when they need it.”

The Time to Change Wales website is packed with information, testimonies and advice about tackling stigma. Visit timetochangewales.org.uk and follow the campaign on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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