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At the heart of general practice since 1960

'My battle with the stigma of mental illness'

By Lilian Anekwe

Dr Liz Gardiner knows all about the stigma associated with mental illness. Her insight comes not only from her work as a GP, but from painful personal experience.

Dr Gardiner, who practises in Leicester, has suffered from severe bouts of depression intermittently for 13 years, which at times have left her feeling close to suicide.

As the Government's controversial Mental Health Bill received its second reading this week, Dr Gardiner told Pulse of her fears that the legislation could intensify the stigma surrounding the mentally ill.

Along with many GPs, Dr Gardiner feels draconian amendments to the Bill could increase what she calls the 'shame and stigma among the general public and within the medical profession itself around mental health issues'.

She says: 'Anything that potentially increases stigma around mental health is not a good thing. As a society we need to end the stigma and help people to realise how common mental illness is.'

Dr Gardiner recalls how difficult she found it to break the news of her own illness. 'I was very worried about telling anybody who I worked with. I suppose I thought, "Am I going to be treated any differently? Will they trust me less as a doctor, or will they think I don't really know what I'm doing, or treat me as a second-class citizen?"

'I have to say, my colleagues have been very supportive, but I know that's not the norm. Previously I've worked with other doctors who have put patients with mental health problems down. I heard a lot of statements from doctors that showed they were pretty ignorant.'

She treats her mentally ill patients with particular empathy – and believes all GPs need to make more of an effort to do the same.

'It's easy to snigger and put people down when you've not taken the time to think about how you would deal with it if you were them.'

So how can the problem of stigma among GPs be addressed? Dr Gardiner thinks medical training in mental health should be less ad-hoc than it often is now.

'We need a much more robust training system where people like myself explain what it's actually like to have depression and feel suicidal, but also show we can be functioning members of society.'

The proposed amendments would allow doctors the power to detain mentally ill people against their will, if they are judged to be a threat to themselves or others.

Dr Gardiner is worried the proposed amendment could widen the gap between doctors and patients. But she admits there were times when her bouts of depression were so severe she lost the capacity for rational judgment – 'so it might be the case that a patient actually might need to be forced to have treatment'.

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