Will 2017 see a fundamental change in attitudes towards mental illness? The Prime Minister believes so with her “comprehensive package of measures to transform mental health support” [i] which acknowledges that one of the most debilitating aspects of mental illness, one that too many of us have encountered, is stigma.
Her speech to launch the new package rightly states: “For too long mental illness has been something of a hidden injustice in our country, shrouded in a completely unacceptable stigma ….” Ending stigma is a huge challenge, of course. One that Time to Change Wales and other campaigns across Britain are already working incredibly effectively on, through many amazing individuals sharing their stories of lived experience. By talking at events or manning information stands, real progress is being made, and I hope the government fully recognises this.
Why is this approach so effective? Because our voices are heard by people from all walks of life, including employers and decision-makers, giving them direct and immediate opportunities to reflect on mental health, mental illness and recovery. Our stories also illustrate the profound impact of the negative assumptions that stigma brings, such as ‘shouldn’t work’, ‘can’t be trusted’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘recovery is a myth’ and so on, not just for us but for those around us. The ripple effect has significant consequences for our families, college friends and work colleagues too. By speaking out, we are shedding light on the realities of the hidden injustice the Prime Minister is talking about.
The benefits to society as a whole are enormous. Because, when stigma is no longer an additional burden of mental ill health, recovery is quicker and staying well and maintaining a positive sense of self is easier.
This is particularly true for the alienation stigma can cause. My story is just one example. I’m passionate about nature, gardening, ancient history, cooking and anything creative - theatre, dance, writing, music. I’ve enjoyed a varied and fulfilling career to date, as an organiser in The Arts and community development alongside being a performer and entertainer which has taken me from Japan to South America.
"The benefits to society as a whole are enormous. Because, when stigma is no longer an additional burden of mental ill health, recovery is quicker and staying well and maintaining a positive sense of self is easier."
I have experienced occasional periods of depression, the worst after several life-changing challenges came in quick succession. The NHS provided a confidence-building course and anti-depressants, and I gained great benefit from group activities at my local Mind Centre. I carried on with my life, recovered and came off medication with the guidance of my GP. I was delighted, felt great and happily told people about my achievement. I was utterly shocked when my joy was not universally welcomed and, for the first time in my life, I faced some very negative attitudes. People stopped contacting me and eventually I couldn’t even work. Going from busy and successful to no confidence, unemployed and feeling like nothing more than someone labelled with ‘mental health issues’ left me shell-shocked and resulted in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Surfing the internet, I came across Time to Change Wales. There, in black and white, was a description of the stigma I had endured and I realised I was not alone after all. Becoming a Champion has brought me so much. My confidence is returning and the world is becoming a friendly place once more. But most of all it has brought new friends who have faced their own challenges, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose.
One of the most telling parts of Theresa May’s speech is: “The government will also consult employers, charities and legal experts to gather evidence about current discrimination protections for workers with mental ill-health.” I am truly surprised the government doesn’t already have access to such information, and I hope the emphasis quickly changes to a more pertinent one - why are the safeguards and laws we already have so ineffective, even ignored, and how can the situation be improved?
Testament to the power of personal narratives is that Theresa May was moved by the stories of some of her fellow politicians who have experienced mental illness. Their words directly helped to bring about the new package. We are already doing our bit to ensure no-one is prevented from fulfilling their potential because of mental illness or the stigma attached to it. The government has now pledged to do theirs. So, are we a step closer to ending stigma? Let’s hope so.