A new survey has shown how prevalent the stigma surrounding schizophrenia remains – and why efforts to combat misconceptions and ignorance about all forms of mental illness must be maintained.
That the vast majority of people wouldn’t tell their neighbours if they had a diagnosis of schizophrenia tells us a great deal about the scale of stigma associated with mental health conditions in the UK.
The survey by Rethink Mental Illness also revealed that a third wouldn’t tell their boss about a diagnosis and a quarter would not open up to friends about it.
This equates to a lot of people who would suffer in silence. But the reasons why are clear; many people still don’t understand what schizophrenia is. The same goes for many other mental health conditions and, as is human nature, people fear what they don’t know or understand.
There are still many myths concerning mental illness. Taking schizophrenia as an example, a link is still often (wrongly) made to violent offences. Yet the mainstream media focuses on the tiny minority of people who do commit a violent offence – usually without mentioning that the vast majority don’t – which only perpetuates the myth.
The recent controversy over major supermarkets stocking Halloween ‘mental patient’ costumes also shows that much work still needs to be done to tackle relatively low-level – but still problematic – discrimination. Although, on the flipside, the outcry over them was heartening and demonstrated that, for many people, the costume names were totally unacceptable.
National anti-stigma campaign Time to Change has done some good work in addressing stigma in recent years. For example, a pilot in the West Midlands aimed at 14 to 18-year-olds, which saw young people with experience of mental ill health deliver training sessions alongside a social marketing campaign, resulted in a 6% fall in discrimination in 18 months. Although quite how that figure was arrived at I don’t know.
Of course, there are also countless other smaller groups around the country that are doing great work at a local level to address stigma.
But more needs to be done. As Rethink Mental Illness’ outgoing chief executive, Paul Jenkins, said about the stigma of schizophrenia: “We can’t just accept things the way they are now. It could be the difference between someone getting the support they need to recover, or having to battle schizophrenia alone.”
He’s right. This wouldn’t be accepted for forms of physical illness. While cancer was something that wasn’t talked about years ago because it was seen as a ‘death sentence’, as treatments have improved, people do talk about it and seek treatment if they suspect they have it. The same is true of mental health – it can be treated, people can and do recover and it should be talked about openly so that if someone is experiencing mental ill health they are not afraid to seek treatment.
Addressing stigma and discrimination takes a generation, if not more. While we have come a long way in the past couple of decades, we need to ensure that this progress continues and more publicity campaigns, surveys and published research can only help to inform and engage people with the reality of mental health.