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Are attitudes changing towards people with mental illness?

Are attitudes changing towards people with mental illness? (IMAGE: Wikipedia)

Attitudes towards mental illness have been improving but they are put to test when someone who struggles with mental health issues commits a violent crime. After the stabbings at Russell Square last week, it’s highly likely that they would draw a different picture.

Time to Change – Britain’s biggest anti-stigma campaign run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness – carry out research annually to monitor the public’s attitude towards mental illness. In their latest report they concluded that discrimination had been in constant decline with attitudes improving by 6%. 2,5 million people have changed positively since the previous research 3 years ago. Less people think that someone who suffers from mental health issues cannot lead a normal life. Tolerance and acceptance have increased alongside a realization of the need to be more caring with others.

Even though the improvements in general understanding are unquestionable there is still a lot to be done. Statistics show that nearly half (48%) of those who participated in the survey would not be comfortable talking about their mental health problems with their employer. These results correlate to NatCen’s research – the stigma is still prevalent in a more personal setting. Schizophrenia seems to be less accepted than depression but both suffers from prejudice and negative attitudes. When asked about letting someone with a mental illness looking after one’s child, 90% said no to a person with schizophrenia and 78% to someone with depression.

There is one big difference between these surveys though that might be significant. In NatCen’s research mental illnesses are not labelled – people were only given a description of symptoms without being named depressed or schizophrenic. Is it possible that the public tries to be more accepting but they still don’t really know what a specific mental illness means? It seems like they want to be more tolerant so they report improving attitudes but when it comes to behaviours, they are not aware that those are symptoms of an illness that can be controlled with medication and therapy.

After all, “Andy, who heard voices even though no one else was around” doesn’t sound like the most suitable babysitter. We are afraid of the things we don’t know and cannot control – education about mental illnesses are still very much needed.

“3.4 million English adults have improved attitudes since 2008, and people with mental health problems are facing less discrimination[1]. But there is still a long way to go before no one has to face discrimination on the grounds of mental illness.” – responded Jo Loughran, Interim Director of Time to Change to the British Social Attitudes survey.

Time to Change‘s research also showed that nearly 40% agrees in people with mental illness having a tendency to violence. However, people struggling with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence. They are not particularly dangerous towards others but they are harmful towards themselves – 90% of people who take their own lives in the UK are experiencing mental distress.

It’s only natural that we get scared when we hear news of someone who randomly attacked several people, harming and killing them. If this person happens to have mental health issues that played a role in their irrational behaviour, it’s easy to jump to conclusions that mental illness equals violence.

These stereotypes and prejudices fuelled by fear cause a lot of damage to people with mental health issues. Being ill – physically or psychologically – already puts us in a vulnerable position so reckless reactions are particularly dangerous.

“The tragic event that occurred could have happened at any day of the week in any street in our cities, because there are lots of mentally disordered people who should be in hospital and who are out and about.” This statement from Kevin Hurley, former head of the Counter Terrorism and Public Order Department for the City of London has a negative affect of the majority of mentally ill people.

Jo Loughran from Time to Change responded to these accusations and the events at Russell Square with the following: “There have been a number of horrendous acts of violence committed across Europe over recent weeks. […] We urge journalists and editors to provide well informed and balanced coverage of mental health. Millions of people experience mental health problems every year and the overwhelming majority will never pose a risk to others.”

The dangerous nature of these conclusions were brought up earlier this year following several acts of violence across Europe. The Independent writer Will Gore acknowledged the result of research conducted by Interpol that said more than a third of lone-wolf attacks in Europe between 2000 and 2015 have been carried out by someone who suffered from some kind of psychiatric disorder. However he also warned everyone of the risk of simplifying complex factors.

Mental illness is much more prevalent than people tend to think. 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues in any given year. Bee Wilson opened up about her eating disorder a couple days ago; Demi Lovato delivered a speech about her difficulties last month. We raised questions about celebrities’ potential role in changing the picture of mental illness before but the fact is that 9 out of 10 people struggling with mental health problems still face stigma and discrimination.

“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.” – said Sue Baker, director of Time to Change.


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