New findings from Time to Change Wales’ Public Attitudes to Mental Illness survey reveals an alarming increase in mental health stigma since the coronavirus pandemic began. The survey provides an insight into the prevailing attitudes and experiences of mental-ill health in Wales.

A key finding from the survey is that despite the public conversation around mental health during the pandemic, stigmatising attitudes are still held by a wide section of people; only 1 in 2 people in Wales say they would feel comfortable talking about their mental health problem with friends and family, and just 1 in 4 would talk to a current or prospective employer about their mental health.

This is despite the survey showing an overall improvement in the Welsh public’s attitudes to mental illness with 5% of adults having more understanding and tolerance representing an estimated 129,000 adults. 

Lowri Wyn Jones, Time to Change Wales Programme Manager said: “It is clear from the survey findings that the pandemic has further exacerbated experiences of mental health stigma in Wales, and it is concerning to hear that it has precluded people from seeking the right support.”

The research follows on from Time to Change Wales’ stigma survey in May 2020, where 54% of people said that self-stigma has worsened during lockdown in Wales. The two surveys outline concerning similarities around the reluctance to openly discuss mental health issues with friends, family, and colleagues and how this could compound things further. 

Mark, 32, from Merthyr Tydfil, felt he couldn’t open up to his friends and family about his depression and anxiety due to fear of being called weak and emotionally unstable. He said: “I felt I had to portray myself in such a way where people wouldn’t suspect that something was seriously troubling me. My biggest worry stemmed from perception, and I was scared about the possibility of people treating me negatively if they ever found out about my mental health struggles. 

Even though I had my own demons to battle with, I was prepared to bottle it up and focus on being there for my friends and family. I couldn’t risk telling anyone about my own struggles as I feared it would only make them even more upset. I felt like they had enough on their plate without me overfilling it, so I started to mentally decline after I found it difficult to deal with what I was going through. 

It was in December 2020 where I was at breaking point. When our First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced further restrictions for the Christmas period, it really got to me. I was really looking forward to all of our family plans and then all of a sudden, the excitement was taken away. One day I had an outburst in front of my fiancé, and I unloaded a lot of what I was keeping to myself. It was a relief to be able to talk it about it and find comfort in someone. I find that it’s easier to put the armour on but might need some help in taking it off. The acknowledgment and reassurance gave me the boost to keep fighting my demons and raise awareness of the importance of taking care and talking about our mental health.”

Despite the considerable conversation around mental health during the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of people who feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health. Those feeling uncomfortable talking to friends and family about mental health has doubled from 20% in 2019 to 43% in 2021. The situation is worse in the workplace with 69% saying they feel uncomfortable talking about mental health with a current or prospective employer compared with 37% in 2019.

The survey also reveals that more people are experiencing mental health issues, as 1 in 4 say they have immediate family members who have experienced a mental health problem in the last year (from 1 in 5 in 2019). Furthermore, just over half of respondents (52%) have either had an experience of a mental health problem or know someone who has in the last 12 months.

Lisa, 48, from Mid Wales has complex mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD and an eating disorder. She is fearful of declaring her mental health conditions on job applications in case she is subjected to mental health stigma and discrimination; something she has already experienced in previous jobs. She said: “In my last job, the discrimination was so bad that I had to take my employer to an employment tribunal. The stigma and discrimination I endured from colleagues was so bad that I considered ending my life. I just felt like I couldn’t open up or be myself. It was such a horrendous time, and since then I’ve been afraid to disclose my mental health conditions on job applications in case I was unfairly treated or scared that I will be subjected to the same stigma and discrimination. 

Now I am more passionate than ever in joining forces with Time to Change Wales and speaking out against the mental health stigma and discrimination that many employees face in the workplace. We need to create safer environments for people to feel empowered and valued so that being ourselves becomes a non-issue and more of something that we feel supported on.”

A further significant finding is the fall in the number of people who would be likely to contact their GP for help if they had a mental health problem. In 2019, 8 out of 10 people said they would ask their GP for help if they felt they had a mental health problem; this has now fallen significantly to less than 7 in 10 (66%). The survey also highlights that 1 in 5 people felt unfairly treated in some way by mental health staff (from 4% in 2019 to 15%).

Lowri Wyn Jones added, “Time to Change Wales has a key role in supporting open conversations around mental health in different settings such as in social spaces and in the workplace. It’s now more important than ever for Time to Change Wales to continue supporting individuals, communities, and employers to challenge stigma and to create a culture of change, and to ensure that no one goes through a mental health problem alone.”  

The Public Attitudes to Mental Illness survey can be found in Time to Change Wales’ impact report (2018-2019). The report also highlights the significant progress made towards realising a vision of an inclusive Wales, where people’s lives are not limited by mental health stigma and discrimination. The impact report is ready to download by clicking here.  

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