Ah, stigma. Our old friend.
This is a subject that those of us who take an interest in mental health politics are constantly banging on about, but the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through to others. The problem is, I think, that all this banging on goes on in circles of people who already know it all already. If you blog about mental health issues as a sufferer/survivor, it is almost certain you will have encountered stigma yourself. You will have faced the dilemma of whether to reveal your illness to employers, you will have avoided the subject with relatives you know will just make stupid comments. So reading the statistics just confirms what you already know.
A report, published last year by the NHS Information Commission, found that only 25% of people would trust most ex-patients of a mental hospital to babysit their child. 21% believed that anyone with a history of mental illness should be prevented from ever taking public office. 11% would not even want to live next door to somebody who has ever suffered from mental illness. People with mental illness have the highest “want to return to work” rates of all disabilities, but face the biggest unemployment rates of any category of disability. They also report difficulty in getting treatment, not only for their mental illness, but for any physical illness that may also affect them – people with severe mental illness have a life expectancy that is shortened by around 10 years.
The facts make depressing reading, and even more so when, as I once witnessed myself, they are displayed on a colourful information board in the corridor of a psychiatric ward. Right next to the door. At one point I hatched a theory that it was put there to stop us wanting to escape to the stigma filled outside world. Looking back, I was probably over thinking things a little…
This is the thing though. When we are mental in the first place, we need a bit more understanding, because we are likely to be much more vulnerable. There is no doubt that we face problems with which we are less able to cope. I’m not sure that just telling ourselves that the problems exist is really going to help much. It might make us more afraid to go out of our comfort zone, away from the people who know what it is like to be mentally ill.
Of course, there shouldn’t be stigma, but I think that we need to go beyond raising awareness that it exists and start trying to cope with it when we do see it.
I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be fought. Of course it should, and I will happily join in the fight. But, the fight will be ongoing for while, and all that time we will still have to find jobs, talk to old friends and live our lives. We can’t just write STIGMA on our front doors and not go out until it goes away.