Fighting the taboo of mental illness

Photo credit: Cabinet Office

Photo credit: Cabinet Office

On 29th October Ed Miliband called for a culture change in the way we think about mental health issues in a speech at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, his first since the Labour Party Conference. Miliband wants to rewrite the NHS constitution to ensure the same legal right to therapies for mental illness as physical healthcare.

More importantly, Miliband put the taboo of mental illness in the spotlight, demanding that the stigma must be removed in the same way that the acceptable has become the unacceptable with issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia over the past few decades.

Miliband also called for mental health training for all staff and better integration of physical, mental health and social care. However, given the point he raised that “mental health doesn’t start in hospital or the treatment room, it starts in our workplaces, our schools and our communities”, it will take more than a call for a new mental health care policy to change the way mental illness is perceived, and the taboo fought.

The serious issue with mental health problems is the lack of understanding within society preventing the necessary help from being sought and causing negative judgements to be made about those suffering.

The scale of the problem of mental health is large. One in four of us will have mental health problems at some point in our lives. According to Mind, 75 per cent of people with mental illness go untreated. Mental health costs UK business £26 billion and the NHS £10 billion each year. Given these statistics, it is clearly a problem which not only needs to be acknowledged but also properly understood and effectively addressed.

Despite the scale of mental health problems, it is too often perceived negatively. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the social stigma and discrimination experienced by the mentally ill can worsen the illness itself and make recovery harder. It highlights how the stigma and discrimination is not limited to that of society but also family, friends and employers. Miliband explained how many feel intimidated for seeking help because of a belief that no one will care.

Mental health problems not only affect those suffering directly but also those around them. The lack of understanding surrounding mental health is perhaps the hardest part of living either directly or indirectly with mental health problems. The issue needs to be bought into the public sphere and people, not just health workers, need to be better educated about it.

Miliband condemned celebrities abusing their privilege “to demean or belittle those with mental health problems”. He pinpointed Jeremy Clarkson and Janet Street-Porter for “reinforcing the stigma that blights millions of people’s lives and holds our country back” by enforcing “lazy caricatures” of those with depression. In turn he praised other public figures for speaking about their own mental health difficulties, including Stephen Fry, Fiona Phillips and Labour’s Alastair Campbell amongst others.

The changes outlined by Miliband are a step in the right direction and the fact that politicians are bringing the issue into the spotlight is even more encouraging. If politics is to reflect the challenges that we face both as individuals and as society, then mental illness is not something that politicians should ignore.

It is encouraging that Miliband is leading the way in acknowledging the role of politicians in changing attitudes. In order to fight the taboo surrounding mental illness, society needs to learn more about it and politicians should have crucial role in bringing this about. Let’s hope this is not the last we have heard of it.

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