We are currently undergoing a transformation in how we approach mental health in this country, with it occupying a much more prominent role in the news, in the health sector and in parliament. This has been particularly evident in recent months, first in the run up to the general election, and again following the budget announcements around welfare at the beginning of July.
Given that one in four people in the UK will suffer a mental health problem in their lifetime, it would be difficult to argue that this isn’t something that affects all of us. But despite its prevalence, stigma remains one of the biggest challenges that people with mental health problems face.
A poll published by ComRes and the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme last week showed that seven in ten (69%) adults think most people in Britain judge people with mental health illnesses more negatively than those with physical illnesses. Only 15% of Britons think they are judged more positively. Among MPs this stigma is seen as one of the biggest issues for people with mental health issues, with half of MPs (50%) identifying stigma as one of the main challenges facing those suffering mental health problems such as depression, according to a recent poll conducted by ComRes and Lundbeck.
The imbalance in how we judge physical and mental health, and the stigma that still surrounds the latter, extends from the social sphere to the healthcare sphere. Mental health accounts for 11% of the overall NHS budget, while representing almost a quarter (23%) of the overall disease burden in the UK.
This has not gone unnoticed by the government, which in 2012 took on a legal responsibility to deliver parity of esteem by 2020, as part of the Health & Social Care Act. Much has been made of the improvements this could bring for overall healthcare. But besides the availability of quality healthcare, or lack thereof, a major deterrent to seeking treatment is stigma.
More research is needed if we are to fully understand how stigma impacts those that have a mental health illness, and how this impact may vary across different demographics. ComRes data suggests, for example, that younger age groups perceive more negative judgement around mental health problems than those aged 55 and above.
Women are also over-represented in the statistics on mental health in the UK, with one in four women seeking treatment for depression compared to one in ten men. Unfortunately, this cannot be taken to mean that men on the whole do not suffer much in terms of their mental health: the suicide rate is three times higher among men than it is among women, and it is the most common cause of death among men under the age of 35.
If our healthcare system is to truly deliver parity of esteem by 2020, we need to have a better understanding of the stigma that prevents certain groups from talking about mental health and accessing care, and how that stigma can be reduced. As a nation we are talking more about mental health, and talking is good, but we need to know that the message is getting across, and to the right people.
More robust research is needed, that explores the different elements that underpin perceptions of mental health – whether these be personal experience, the portrayal of mental health in the media, or the current public dialogue surrounding the issue. This will allow the government and local authorities to take more effective measures to effectively tackle stigma, and to successfully establish an equal footing for both mental and physical health in the UK.