coupletalkPublic knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards people with mental health problems in England improved from 2008 to 2014, but there are still stark differences between men and women when it comes to talking about mental health, new research has found.

New research published in the Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica journal by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s college London into mental health stigma and discrimination in England found that people with mental health problems are less likely to turn to men for support, and that women are better at recognising mental health problems in others. 

The data evaluates the impact of the Time to Change anti-stigma campaign, which is run by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. The English data was presented alongside that from campaigns in Sweden and Canada between 2008 and 2014. 

Overall, the results in England showed that, consistent with the changes to public attitudes, there was a significant reduction in the levels of discrimination faced by people with mental health problems between 2008 and 2014.

In addition, there was a 6% increase in those reporting no discrimination in any life area and the average level of discrimination reported fell from 42% to 28%. Meanwhile, people are facing less discrimination from family (7% reduction), friends (15% reduction) and when dating (10% reduction). 

These results stand in contrast to surveys in other countries that have not had national anti-stigma campaigns – where there has generally been no change, or even a negative trend in public attitudes.

However, despite these changes, discrimination continues to have an impact on people’s lives. A qualitative study included in the journal looked at how discrimination affected people with mental health problems, with people reporting that friends and family members ‘shy away’ and ‘turn their backs’. This lack of support leaves people feeling isolated, and often made people’s mental health problems worse.

Oli Regan, 25, who has bipolar, has experienced mental health stigma within his family. “I was nine when I first noticed something wasn’t right, and decided to open up to my dad. He told me to ‘man up’ as ‘young men shouldn’t be talking about their feelings’. Because of this, I kept my thoughts to myself. Eventually in my teens everything built up and I tried to take my own life at the age of 18.  

“I think a lot of guys find it hard to talk about their feelings to male friends and family because of what is expected of you as a man in society. From a young age you’re told to be strong and pull yourself together. This can be so damaging, and I wish I had felt more comfortable speaking out sooner.”

Over the next 5 years, Time to Change will introduce targeted work to encourage men to be more open and supportive of friends, family and colleagues who have a mental health problem. To build on the improvements highlighted in this research, Time to Change will also continue to support communities, schools and workplaces to open up to mental health problems.

Jo Loughran, interim director at Time to Change, added: “We’ve always known that there are gender differences when it comes to talking about mental health problems and the new research confirms this. Mental health is just not on the radar for many men. The ultimate consequence of this can be seen in the tragically high suicide rate amongst men under 50. This must change and we will address this, encouraging more men to be open and supportive around the issues of mental health.

“While on the whole this data is extremely encouraging and shows just how far we’ve come in the way that people think and act about mental health problems, too many people are still made to feel, isolated, ashamed and worthless. One person saying their life has been ruined because of the way they have been treated by others is one too many, and our movement will continue until everyone is free of fear and has equal opportunities in all areas of life.”