See Change working to overcome stigma
Tackling the stigma associated with mental health difficulties is the first step to success. By Justin Frewen.
See Change is a new nationwide partnership established to tackle stigma and the attendant discrimination faced by mental health service users. It comprises an alliance of various organisations that have come together through the National Stigma Reduction Partnership to effect positive change in public attitudes and behaviour towards people with mental health problems.
One of See Change´s first actions was to commission a Benchmark Survey in the first half of this year. This study, conducted by Millward Browne, assessed public attitudes towards mental health in Ireland. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 977 adults over the age of 18 in their own homes.
The majority of those interviewed, some 60%, had no direct experience of mental health problems. On the other hand, 30% had either acted as carers for or had family members with a mental health issue. Although most believe almost anyone could develop a mental health problem, only 1 in 5 believed recovery was possible in most cases.
A disturbing intolerance was also manifest. Although two-thirds agreed strongly that people with a mental health issue should enjoy the same rights as everyone else, less than half (46%) felt this should apply in the case of employment rights. Only 20% said they would be very comfortable working with someone who was experiencing depression.
Workplace colleagues also proved less accepting of people with a mental health issue than their neighbours. This was true across the five major categories of mental health problems: namely alcoholism, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders.
A significant, if varying, level of prejudice was apparent as to whether those who had a mental health problem should have children. In the cases of eating disorders, anxiety disorders and depression just over half believed it was alright at 59%, 56% and 53% respectively; 9%, 11% and 16% respectively were opposed. However, for those who were suffering from alcoholism and schizophrenia only small majorities of the respondents were in favour of their having children; 35% to 31% in the case of alcoholism and 33% to 31% for schizophrenics.
The survey also revealed apparently contradictory findings. For instance, although some 75% believed mental health issues should be openly discussed, 50% declared they would not want anyone to know they had a mental health problem. 25% agreed they would find it difficult to talk with someone experiencing a mental health problem. Although 84% declared they would be willing to support people with a mental health issue, 1 in 3 would hide it from their friends and 1 in 10 even from their family. Moreover, 1 in 3 believed that should they have a mental health issue their family would try to conceal it from others.
Unsurprisingly, those who had direct personal experience of mental health issues were more open. This fact emphasises the importance of improving the levels of general public knowledge with respect to mental health in order to effectively combat stigma and discrimination. It is hoped that See Change can play a critical role in this respect.
The launch of See Change in April this year was attended by the Minister for State, John Moloney [pictured]. In his address, he highlighted the importance of tackling Stigma: "Stigma has no place in Irish society today. It damages people's lives and can be deeply hurtful and isolating, and is one of the most significant problems encountered by people with mental health problems."
Stigma can have extremely damaging consequences for mental health service users not only in terms of service access and confiding in others but also in terms of recovery. Many experts would hold that stigma can frequently prove more harmful than the initial mental health problem. Stigma can also help perpetuate an ongoing cycle of ever deteriorating socio-economic prospects and lingering mental health difficulties.
One of See Change´s principal strategies to promote public awareness and understanding of mental health issues involves its combining with 34 community fora around Ireland to host public meetings on mental health stigma and how it might be tackled. These public meetings will be convened in larger and smaller towns nationwide. Guest experts will share international best practices and lessons learned with the attendees. The objective will be to determine effective ways whereby local communities can play a substantive role in working together with See Change to reduce the stigmatisation of - and discrimination against - people with a mental health problem.
The See Change partners are also running a range of other activities in coordination with these fora to inform the public about stigma and how they might work with See Change to overcome it. To create public awareness Amnesty have launched a nationwide co-branded promotional campaign to promote public awareness. This campaign will lead into a range of social marketing activities. People with Disabilities in Ireland (PWDI) are holding six major conferences around the country, open to everyone, focussing on stigma and discrimination. These assemblies have already started and have been very well attended.
Given the importance of ensuring younger people understand stigma and how it might be overcome, a number of events are being held in universities. The Union of Students of Ireland (USI) undertook a number of co-branded activities for USI mental health week and have developed a mental health pack for students. A particularly significant initiative has been the Please Talk events taking place in colleges around Ireland encouraging students to discuss the issue of stigma and what it means to them.