Changing our attitudes towards mental health

The news pages, Twitter and blogosphere have reacted in great force to the ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costume controversy. From football players to spin doctors, it’s seems that everyone’s talking about mental health. But is it enough?

Three of the UK’s biggest retailers Asda, Tesco and Amazon were criticised this week for selling ‘mental patient’ and ‘psycho ward’ fancy dress costumes. And rightly so. A blood-spattered straight jacket with axe accessory should never be synonymous with someone living with mental health issues. There are those that would argue it’s just a ‘joke’ - that it’s exaggeration and make believe. The problem with this argument is that these ‘mental patient’ costumes are harmful. They exacerbate the extremely damaging and unfounded stigma of mentally ill people as ‘violent and a danger to society’.

According to Time to Change, the anti-stigma campaign run by leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink, over a third of the public think people with mental health problems are likely to be violent. In fact 95 per cent of homicides in the UK are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with a mental health problem, yet someone with a mental illness is four times more likely to be a victim of violence. 

So the stigma may be unfounded but its effects are very real and very damaging.  It isolates people from friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, employers, teachers, services and everyday life activities. As Time to Change explains: “People often find it hard to tell others about a mental health problem they have, because they fear the reaction. And when they do speak up, the overwhelming majority say they are misunderstood by family members, shunned and ignored by friends, work colleagues and professionals or called names or worse by neighbours.”

This shouldn’t be happening. If one in four of us have experienced a mental health problem then why is it such a taboo subject to talk about? If at least one family member, one colleague in the office, one football team mate has struggled with depression, anxiety or delusions then why aren’t we doing more to help?

The funny thing is helping couldn’t be easier. We just need to talk. If you know someone who has been struggling with their mental health, ask them how they’re doing. You don’t have to be a professional to talk about mental health, you don’t need to offer therapeutic advice or provide a ‘cure.’ Just be there for them, as described in Time to Change’s campaign Time to Talk  which provides some really easy to follow tips for talking:

  • Talk, but listen too: simply being there will mean a lot.
  • Keep in touch: meet up, phone, email or text.
  • Don’t just talk about mental health: chat about everyday things as well.
  • Remind them you care:  small things can make a big difference.
  • Be patient: ups and downs can happen.

The simple act of talking can be a light in the fog to some people. Knowing that someone cares, understands and is non-judgemental makes a huge difference. As Project Co-ordinator for TimeBank’s mental health mentoring project ‘The Switch’  I’ve seen this difference first hand. The Switch matches young people who are living with mental health problems and leaving Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), with volunteer mentors who help build their self-esteem and confidence by spending time with them, doing everyday things like going for coffee, enjoying a hobby or preparing to get a job.

One young man, 18 year old Dean, told me that the best things about having a mentor was that: “I could talk about how I was feeling, but we could also talk about normal things, like music and TV.” Dean went on to explain that his mentor helped him to trust people and become more sociable. Nine months of mentoring and Dean has gone from being unable to leave the house on his own or access services and with no plans for the future, to a young lad who can walk to the high street on his own, is able to trust and access other services, and who has the confidence to apply for internships and think about the career he wants.

So I’m going to set you the easiest of homework – talk. Because trust me, one quarter of the UK population is waiting for it.