Challenging the stigma

By Kirsty Topping         30 October 2009

sun82The label mental illness is highly stigmatising. It encourages people to think of ‘the mentally ill’ as different, rather than seeing them as ordinary people who simply have more severe emotional difficulties to cope with. Popular misconceptions, fuelled by some in the media, see mentally ill people as violent and dangerous. A prime example of this was when The Sun’s reacted to the former boxer Frank Bruno being sectioned under the Mental Health Act and chose to run the headline “Bonkers Bruno locked up”.

Jean Cumming, the Chief Executive of Crisis, a Renfrewshire-based organisation which offers immediate intervention for mental health problems feels that people’s perception of mental health is one of alarm: “We fear mental illness because we can’t understand it; every person’s worst fear is that they will become mentally ill. We are fighting a battle to persuade them they are normal people affected by abnormal circumstances – and we strive to allay the fear the public has of mental illness because fear and apprehension breed an unsympathetic attitude.”

In a Scottish Government survey, half of all respondents said that they would not want anybody to know if they developed a mental health problem. Most people in the same survey said that they thought the media portrayed people with mental health problems negatively.

depression1In addition, a 2001 study found that only 37% of employers said they would in future take on people with mental illness. This compared to the 62% who would take on physically disabled people, 78% who would employ long-term unemployed people and 88% who would appoint lone parents. Little wonder then that 64% of young people say that they would be embarrassed to disclose a mental health problem to a prospective employer.

For such a common illness, there is still a massive stigma attached to depression, – 41% of people with mental health problems have experienced harassment living in Scottish communities, compared with 15% of the general public and some people will go into denial over their illness rather than suffer the stigma.

So severe is the problem of sufferer’s being stigmatised that three years ago a Scottish charity, Depression Alliance Scotland , was set up to tackle it. Former Depression Alliance Scotland chairwoman Cynthia Milligan wants the attitude to mental illness to change.

“Depression is a misunderstood illness which can have a devastating effect on those suffering from it. It is a tragedy that whilst depression is on the increase in Scotland many people do not seek treatment or support for fear of the stigma associated with both depression and mental health in general. The message is simple – depression is in most cases treatable and sufferers can greatly improve their quality of life”.

10spike_narrowweb__300x3900However, many famous faces are now coming forward and admitting that they suffer from mental ill health – thus helping to reduce that stigma. Famously, Caroline Aherne and Stephen Fry have both spoken about their experiences, while Kurt Cobain is probably one of the most famous suicide victims. Less well known is that funny-men Jim Carrey, Hugh Laurie and Spike Milligan have all suffered various degrees of depression. Following the birth of her daughter, Honey, Gail Porter spoke of her experience of post-natal depression, again helping to normalise the condition.

Fry is probably the most high profile person to publicly reveal their mental ill health; he suffered a highly publicised nervous breakdown in 1995, which was attributed at the time to bad reviews of his performance in a play called Cell Mates. At the time he was also suffering from serious clinical depression as a result of his then undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He subsequently walked out of the production and went missing for several days, during which time he contemplated suicide. He abandoned the idea and fled from the United Kingdom by ferry, eventually resurfacing in Belgium.

stephen-fryFry has since spoken publicly about the experience of living with bipolar disorder and has made and presented a documentary about the condition and his personal experience of it, Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic-Depressive where he interviewed other famous sufferers of the illness including Carrie Fisher, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tony Slattery. He also interviewed Rick Stein, whose father committed suicide, Robbie Williams, who talked of his experience with unipolar depression, and comedienne Jo Brand, who previously worked as a psychiatric nurse.

Efforts such as his go a long way towards explaining mental illness to the public at large who may have no experience of such things and therefore are more likely to be fearful of, and more likely to stigmatise, those suffering mental ill health. Giving the public information is the best way to normalise sufferers. With the correct treatment to manage their condition, patients are no different from anyone else.

Many eminent writers, artists, sculptors, philosophers, politicians, scientists, composers and actors have suffered from depression. With so many in the same boat, depression sufferers must remember that they are not alone and the days of being brushed aside and dismissed are long in the past. The identification and treatment of depression is the best it has ever been and there are support networks in place to help sufferers. Depression, and mental illness in general, is not a death sentence, even though it may sometimes feel like that.

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Depression 3 part series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3