Thursday, 18 June 2009

Stigma associated with Mental Illness: A long road ahead

New government figures out this week in the UK claim that public attitudes towards people with mental illness have reached a tipping point. The Department of Health survey shows improvements including:
  • 77% agree mental illness is an illness like any other an improvement of 3% on last year and up 6% since 1994
  • 73% think that people with mental health problems have the same right to a job as everyone else, up 7% on last year
  • 78% judge the best therapy for people with mental illness is to be part of a normal community, up 8% on last year
  • 61% agree that people with mental illness are far less of a danger than most people suppose, an improvement of 4% on 2008
However, it also includes some more alarming figures:
  • 11% would not want to live next door to someone with a mental health problem, an increase from 8% since 1994
  • Almost a third of young people (16-34yrs) think there is something about people with mental illness that makes it easy to tell them from 'normal people'
  • 52% of young people agree people with mental illness are far less of a danger than most people suppose, 17% less than people over 55yrs
  • 22% feel anyone with a history of mental health problems should be excluded from taking public office
  • When the issue is brought closer to home - only 23% feel that women who were once patients in a mental hospital can be trusted as babysitters.
  • 65% underestimated the actual prevalence of mental illness and only 13% were aware that 1 in 4 people will experience at mental health problem.
Stigma is essentially the polite word for discrimination. It has no place in our caring society. While some public attitudes toward people with mental illness are improving, the numbers above suggest we still have a long way to go. It is all too easy to look at these numbers with rose-coloured glasses and proclaim that we have reached a tipping point. However I believe the Canadian Medical Association's assessment of a similar study conducted last year to be more accurate when they called Canadian stigma and attitudes a "national embarrassment". Findings from that report (pdf) indicate:
  • One in 10 thinks that people with mental illness could "just snap out of it if they wanted"
  • One in four Canadians is afraid of being around someone who suffers from serious mental illness.
  • Only half of those surveyed would tell friends or co-workers that a family member was suffering from mental illness.
  • Only 16 per cent said they would marry someone who suffered from mental illness, and 42 per cent said they would no longer socialize with a friend diagnosed with a mental illness. By contrast, 72 per cent would openly discuss cancer and 68 per cent would talk about diabetes in the family.
  • Half of Canadians think alcoholism and drug addiction are not mental illnesses.
  • One in nine people think depression is not a mental illness, and one in two think it is not a serious condition.
  • Almost half of Canadians (46%) think the term "mental illness" is used as an excuse for bad behaviour;
  • A solid majority of Canadians would not have a family doctor (61%) or hire a lawyer (58%) who has a mental illness;

Stigma against the mentally ill is recognized as one of the greatest barriers to social justice, appropriate health care and development of civic society. We are not at a tipping point yet, but hopefully sometime soon. ~ David Venn & Dr. Stan Kutcher (image credit: nite fate)

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