Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Challenging Mental Health Prejudices Together

Written by Hayley Richardson

Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet despite this stigma and discrimination is still debilitating the lives of many people and preventing them speaking out and seeking the support they need. Time to Change is England’s biggest programme to tackle this stigma and discrimination, and is run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief. The programme aims to change attitudes so that everyone can speak openly about their experiences and lead discrimination free lives.

People in all communities report stigma and discrimination and Time to Change works to create safe spaces to enable people with and without mental health problems to get together and start new conversations about the issue. Evidence suggests that this kind of ‘social contact’ is one of the most effective ways of breaking down stigma and improving attitudes.

Recently Time to Change worked with the east London mental health group Mellow, on a fun and engaging festival, ‘Stereo-Hype’, which aimed specifically to get people from the African and Caribbean community talking about mental health. This year’s festival attracted over 500 visitors.

The two day festival of music, film, drama, comedy and wellbeing workshops celebrated the strengths and achievements of African and Caribbean people living with mental health problems. As part of the event volunteers who have experience of a mental illness engaged visitors in conversations about mental health by sharing their stories, they also informed people about Time to Change, and talked about why the festival was focusing on African and Caribbean communities.

Among the many people who turned up to enjoy the festival were Chelsea's first black footballer Paul Canoville and acclaimed boxer Herol ‘Bomber' Graham. Both featured in ‘Black Men on the Couch’ workshops to talk powerfully to the audience about their experiences of mental health problems.

Nine out of 10 people with mental health problems face stigma and discrimination as a result, and this can manifest itself in different ways in different communities. Stereo-Hype encouraged African and Caribbean communities to talk openly about mental health with the conversation led by the community itself, and challenge prejudices that surround the issue. Time to Change hopes the event will encourage more people from this community to get more actively involved with the campaign.

Festival Coordinator Sandra Griffiths said: "Many Black people with mental health problems live in the community. The current debate needs to go beyond the question of why there are so many Black people in the system and address the support systems for those who already live in the community or who are released from hospital without a safety net. We also want to encourage Black communities to start talking about what they can do to support black people with mental health problems and not just rely on mental health services to fill the gap."

Time to Change has also just launched its latest national marketing campaign – ‘It’s time to talk. It’s time to change’. The campaign encourages everyone, regardless of their background, to start a conversation around mental health. It also aims to remove the awkwardness around mental health by focusing on the small steps we can all take to support someone who’s going through a difficult time.

The campaign is inspired by stories of real people who have been there for someone experiencing a mental illness. A new advert featuring these ‘everyday heroes’ was aired on TV screens throughout January and February to highlight the importance of staying in contact and being supportive of friends and family members.

As part of the campaign, Time to Change found that three quarters of people (75%) who have experienced a mental health problem say they have lost friendships as a result of their illness1.

Furthermore, the survey found that 40%2 of British adults would feel awkward talking to a friend who was experiencing a mental health problem. And, only around a quarter (27%)2 feel it would be their responsibility to bring the subject up if they knew a friend was going through a tough time with their mental health.

Sadly, these findings show that despite many people knowing someone with a mental health problem, they still don’t feel equipped with enough knowledge to be a supportive friend. The misconceptions that still surround people with a mental health problem make others worry about offending or embarrassing someone, or saying or doing the wrong thing. So people avoid seeing their friends or speaking to them, when in fact these are the very things that can be helpful.

However, as part of the campaign, Time to Change shows people that you don’t have to be an expert to start a conversation about mental health. Being a supportive friend can include small gestures like sending a quick text or email, or an invitation to meet up.

Since Time to Change began in 2007 there has been great progress in challenging the negative attitudes and behaviours around mental health problems. Last year in particular was a landmark year with many events and discussions that have really help to challenge some common misconceptions about people with mental health problems. Now this momentum has been achieved we need to grab it with both hands. There is a long way to go but if we all do our bit we can reach the tipping point where the topic of mental health isn’t something we shy away from.

Hayley Richardson