‘Much improved, but could still do better.’ If our attitude to mental illness was on a school report, that would be the end-of-term comment.
It’s true that we have moved forward dramatically in our understanding and acceptance of mental illness over the last 20 years. A couple of decades ago, ‘depression’, ‘OCD’, ‘PTSD’ and ‘bipolar affective disorder’ would have largely been jargon within the medical profession, whereas they’re now used in common parlance.
As a population, we are more aware than ever of the enormous numbers of people who suffer mental illness at some point in their life. Rich; poor; educated; uneducated; young; old – mental illness can affect literally anyone.
Then why is it still a stigma?
Most people would not be afraid to share their experiences of being on a coronary care or surgical ward at a dinner party, but I suspect far fewer would be happy to talk about their time in a psychiatric hospital with the same group of friends. And I guess that is part of the problem – medicine, surgery, obstetrics and paediatrics are generally lumped together in one hospital, and yet we still treat people with mental illness in a separate building. Is this not giving the message to patients with mental health problems that they have a ‘different’ sort of illness to everyone else?
Physical health is lumped together in one hospital, yet we still treat people with mental illness in a separate building
I genuinely admire well known individuals like Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell who publically talk about their own struggle with poor mental health. This, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons mental illness is becoming less stigmatised. However, famous people in a way have ‘nothing to lose’ by publicly discussing the fact they suffer from a mental illness. In many ways, it may enhance their standing, as they’re seen to be doing something to better society.
What, though, would happen to a senior member of the medical profession if they made it known to the wider public they suffered from depression or anxiety? Suspension? Closely followed by a fitness-to-practice investigation by the GMC, I suspect.
This is the crux of the problem. Many people are still afraid to openly discuss that they have or did suffer from a mental illness, for fear of how it may affect their future prospects.
We’ve come a long way in promoting equality when it comes to race, religion, gender and ethnicity in our society, so how about our next challenge being to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of mental health?
Dr David Turner is a GP in North West London