timetochangePeople in England are becoming more tolerant and understanding of people with mental health issues but work still needs to be done to reduce stigma and discrimination, according to new statistics.

More than two thirds of people in England now say they would be willing to live, work and have a relationship with someone who has experience of a mental health problem. Public attitudes towards those with mental ill health have also improved by 6% over the last three years, which equates to more than 2.5 million people, according to the National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey. 

The survey, released by Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, has been conducted annually by TNS since 1993, with additional analysis carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London since 2009. The reported improvements in attitude change of 6% – against a 5% target between 2011 and 2014 – have happened despite the risk of deterioration during times of economic hardship.

In the survey a number of questions are asked that are designed to track how public attitudes are changing over time. In 2009, questions were introduced to measure the public’s intended behaviour towards people with mental health problems. In this study levels of reported and intended behaviour have reached their highest level since then: 

9% increase in willingness to live with someone with a mental health problem (57% to 66%)

8% increase in willingness to live nearby to someone with a mental health problem (72% to 80%)

7% willingness to continue a relationship with a friend who had a mental health problem (82% to 89%)

7% increase in willingness to work with someone with a mental health problem (69% to 76%).

The number of people acknowledging that they know someone close who has had a mental illness has increased from 58% in 2009 to 65% in 2014. Encouragingly, 68% of respondents also said they now know what advice to give a friend to get professional help for their mental health problem. 

Stigma still remains

However, while the survey found that in general people are becoming more understanding of people with mental ill health – 91% agreed that we need a more tolerant attitude towards people with mental health problems in our society – more work still needs to be done to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Although 40% of people said they would be comfortable talking to their employer about their mental health problems, nearly half (48%) said they would feel uncomfortable. When asked about how to describe someone who has a mental illness, nearly 40% agreed that they are prone to violence, when in reality people are far more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrator.

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, hailed society’s continuing shift in thinking about mental health. “The driving force of the momentum built in recent years is the movement of thousands of people and organisations who are working tirelessly to tackle stigma, overturning old stereotypes and out-dated attitudes, and helping to give mental health a higher profile,” she said. “People openly sharing their mental health experiences, in all walks of life, is key to this change. Despite this progress we also know that stigma and discrimination are still common experiences, which requires a sustained focus on effective strategies.”

Minister of State for Community & Social Care, Alistair Burt, agreed: “It’s good to see that society’s attitudes to mental health are changing for the better, but we have a long way to go. I want to lend my support to all those who face or help challenge stigma and lack of understanding. With three-quarters of mental health problems in adult life starting before the age of 18 it is vitally important to help improve public awareness and understanding from a younger age.”

Meanwhile, Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, spoke of a “remarkable social movement” of people feeling empowered to tackle stigma and discrimination when they see it. “Mental health will no longer remain in the shadows,” he said. “We have started to see real change happen but we won’t stop until the shame and fear that has for too long been associated with mental health becomes a thing of the past.”

Mark Winstanley, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness, added: “It’s really encouraging to see attitudes towards mental illness improve year on year. Recently, we have seen a definite shift where people feel empowered to speak up against negative stigma, through social media in particular. And while it’s still not perfect, we are also seeing more responsible reporting of mental illness in the press, and where this is not the case, there is now often a huge public backlash, which wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. Time to Change is doing a fantastic job in galvanising us to all play our part in ending the negative stigma of mental illness, to ensure people get the support they need and don’t suffer in silence.”