Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Let's stamp out cruel jibes at those with mental illness

A change in attitude is necessary if we are to end our prejudice towards sufferers, and it needn't cost us a penny, says Peter McBride

Today at Parliament Buildings, the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (NIAMH) launches its Change your Mind Stamp out Stigma guide for public representatives. NIAMH is enlisting the services of MLAs, MPs, councillors and MEPs in its campaign to put an end to stigma associated with mental illness.

One in four people experience mental health problems in the course of a year.

That means that among your friends and family the likelihood is that someone will experience a mental health problem which could include anxiety, depression, phobias, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or a range of longer-term conditions.

In many cases, those suffering such problems have friends and family who rally around, providing emotional strength and support as individuals receive counselling and other treatment. Sadly however, a higher number of people report increasingly negative attitudes towards them and others with similar problems. Evidence from surveys support this.

Some 26% of people surveyed by the Equality Commission in 2012 said that they would mind 'a little' or 'a lot' having a person with mental ill-health as a colleague, representing a 9% increase since 2008. Some 24% said they would mind having a neighbour with mental ill-health - up 8% since 2008. An amazing 37% said they would mind having an in-law with a mental health problem, an increase of 12% since 2008.

While many of us cannot control the numerous physical aliments which affect us through life, few people would dare make snide remarks, jokes, or attempt to belittle these sometimes serious physical illnesses. Sadly, for many, it seems it is tolerated when faced with those experiencing mental ill-health.

Worse still, people are stereotyped, labelled, discriminated against and suffer outright prejudice. Stigmatising behaviour attempts to take away their dignity.

Continued stigma leads to wider social exclusion both in local communities and in the wider policy and health arena. Spending on the provision of mental health services is downgraded and the issues are not prioritised in policy development and legislation.

NIAMH is asking public representatives to support our campaign to stamp out the stigma associated with mental illness.

Politicians are well-known in their communities. They hold positions of influence and responsibility and for that reason we are asking all public representatives to join NIAMH's campaign. Each will be urged to meet with people to hear at first-hand the damaging impact that stigma has. They will also be asked to secure commitments in councils, the NI Assembly and other institutions to stamp out stigma for good.

Furthermore, NIAMH will engage with each MLA to organise anti-stigma workshops in their offices and we will urge all MLAs to display our anti-stigma emblem and provide information on the mental health support services that are available to constituents.

Equally important will be our call to all our public representatives to take steps to look after their own mental health and wellbeing. We are asking public representatives to tell us how they look after their own mental health and wellbeing; and we will publicise this to help others recognise that we all need proactively to look after our mental health. Finally, we will be writing to all political parties to provide briefings to representatives on the damage that stigma can cause, and the steps that we can take together to reduce it in Northern Ireland.

Much of society's commentary focuses on the financial measures required to obtain improved outcomes. This improvement - the end of stigma surrounding mental health - costs nothing. All it requires is for people to change their mind and end their prejudice.

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