Even though 1 in every 6 people have a mental illness, mental illnesses remain widely misunderstood and heavily stigmatised leading to low disclosure rates. Erik Baurdoux who was diagnosed with depression talks about the negative attitudes he had to face and his subsequent involvement in a campaign to end mental health discrimination.
In 2006, the Centre for Economic Performance’s Mental Health Policy Group, led by Lord Professor Richard Layard, produced the influential LSE Depression Report
In the report they wrote, “Crippling depression and chronic anxiety are the biggest causes of misery in Britain today. They are the great submerged problem, which shame keeps out of sight. But if you mention them, you soon discover how many families are affected. According to the respected Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, one in six of us would be diagnosed as having depression or chronic anxiety disorder, which means that one family in three is affected.”
The World Health Organisation projects that by 2020 depression will be the second leading in the ranking for Disability Adjusted Life Years for all ages and both sexes. The WHO also estimates “that mental health conditions cost British employers almost £26bn a year.”
In the recent NHS survey findings from Attitudes to Mental Illness 2011, it was found that one in six people believe one of the main causes of mental illness is lack of self-discipline and will-power. Considering how common mental illness is, there is no reason for a stigma to remain in place. Mental illness can affect anyone, it is an equal opportunity health issue.
Some of the reasons behind the stigma are a lack of information and a feeling of shame in talking about experiences of mental illness. The media also has a role to play. All too often the link between mental illness and violence is grossly exaggerated. Indeed, recent research from Oxford University has indicated that “people with a severe mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else – unless they abuse drugs or alcohol.”
It was not that long ago that the boxer Frank Bruno was admitted to a mental hospital leading to the Sun headline “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. Together with a number of other celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Alistair Campbell (and many non-celebrities), he got involved with the Time to Change campaign to try to challenge the stigma attached to mental illness. The message of the most recent campaign is expressed in this short video:
I got involved with Time to Change last summer when I decided I wanted to do something positive with my own experience of mental illness and try to help challenge the stigma. In this short film we looked at what happened when I posted my details on flat sharing and dating websites and later added some details about my mental health, explaining afterwards that it was all part of an experiment.
In the related YouGov survey it was found that if, after a successful first date, you disclose that you have a mental health problem you are about as likely to be turned down (40%) as if you disclosed that you’ve just been released from prison and over twice as likely if you disclosed you have a physical health problem.
Although I did receive a couple of very negative responses, some were actually quite positive. These were mainly from people who had a friend or family member with a mental health problem, which seems to indicate that when a person knows someone with a mental illness they tend to be more understanding, and hence the stigma seems to be more about a genuine lack of information rather than malevolence.
The authors of the Depression Report also write, “For many patients, work is an essential element in recovery and it is vital that they keep their jobs or are helped to get back into work.” Considering the cost of mental illness to the economy, one would expect employers to have a supportive policy. However, even though mental illness is covered by the Equality Act 2010, many people are reluctant to disclose their mental illness to their boss for fear of negative reactions or even of losing their jobs, sometimes rightly so.
The silence and lack of understanding about mental illness encourages feelings of shame, and discourages people from seeking treatment or even admitting that symptoms they may be experiencing may be related to a mental illness. It is saddening whenever a student comes into my office talking about their mental health difficulties and saying that they haven’t been seeking professional help because their parents see it as a shame for the family or think their child is being lazy and should just “get their act together”.
Saying to someone with depression to snap out of it is like saying to someone who is wheelchair bound to run a marathon, the only difference being that the former condition is mostly invisible.
Of course, everyone feels sad from time to time, but this common emotion is in a completely different league from severe depression. In fact, it is pretty much impossible to put into words what severe depression (and other forms of mental illness) feels like.
Author William Styron came pretty close when he said, “That’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on Heinrich Himmler. As I kept saying to myself, it’s unbelievable torment”. Professor Emeritus of Biology Lewis Wolpert used terminology commonly associated with cancer by giving the very appropriate title “Malignant Sadness” to his poignant book about his experience with depression.
I still find it very rewarding to receive emails from friends, colleagues and other people writing about their own mental health difficulties or about their loved ones’, sometimes for the first time. When people feel safe to write or talk about such issues it can be a big relief for them.
Fortunately, one does not have to be a mental health expert to offer support. On the contrary, sometimes a cup of tea, a listening ear, a walk in the park or just staying in touch can be extremely important.
The journey to recovery can be a bumpy ride at times, but it is a ride that one should not have to undertake alone.
Dr. Erik Baurdoux joined the LSE Statistics Department as a Lecturer in September 2007 after obtaining his PhD in Mathematics from Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Through his own experience Erik is passionate about raising mental health awareness and he is a volunteer for the charity Mind and the anti-stigma campaign Time to Change.