Earlier this month, the NHS Information Centre published the latest survey of public attitudes to mental illness in England.
In many ways, the results were encouraging. They showed that public understanding about mental illness and attitudes towards people with mental health problems in recent years are improving.
Over three quarters of respondents, for example, agreed that ‘mental illness is an illness like any other’ while 72 per cent agreed that someone with a mental illness should have the same rights to a job as anyone else.
The survey has now been running since 1994. Between then and 2003, there was a noticeable hardening of attitudes towards people with a mental illness. High profile cases of homicide involving people who had been in contact with mental health services, coupled intense political debate about how dangerousness should be managed, have been widely blamed for this trend.
Since that time, there have been gradual improvements in attitudes, with answers to most questions showing greater acceptance of people with mental health problems as citizens with the same entitlements as everyone else in our society.
The upward trend is a great tribute to the efforts of campaigners who in recent years have sought to demystify mental ill health and tackle the prejudice and ignorance that have a huge impact on the lives of people with mental health problems.
But underlying the positive trend is a worrying truth: that fear of people with mental health problems and ignorance about mental illness are still widespread across our society. One person in six agrees that ‘locating mental health facilities in a residential area downgrades the neighbourhood’. This kind of fear is too often translated into action, bedevilling efforts to build new community services.
One in eight, meanwhile, agreed that ‘one of the main causes of mental illness is a lack of self-discipline and will-power’. Such myths translate all too easily into hostility towards people claiming incapacity benefits.
Even the fact that 72 per cent agree about a right to a job shows that over a quarter do not. And attitudes can be seen to harden the ‘closer to home’ questions are: only 25 per cent said they would trust a woman who had been in a ‘mental hospital’ as a babysitter.
These are not merely the views of a tiny minority of intolerant people. They are mainstream social attitudes with a long history. And they are not confined to older generations, either. A survey by YoungMinds last year showed that myths and misperceptions were just as prevalent among children and young adults. They found that mental illness is widely associated with violence and that half of young people are subject to verbal abuse when they are distressed.
The need for continued action to tackle these entrenched and ingrained prejudices and fears clearly remains. The Time to Change campaign has begun to bring about the kind of social change that will take more than one generation to bear fruit. That work will need to be sustained for some time to come, and with people of all ages, to achieve its full potential.
The government’s mental health strategy, meanwhile, rightly includes reduced stigma and discrimination as one its key objectives. Action to put that policy into practice should begin now. Restrictions on people with mental health problems serving on juries or sitting in Parliament need to be lifted as a matter of urgency. These symbolic acts of discrimination have no place in twenty-first century Britain.
Tackling stigma remains key to achieving so much more to improve the life chances of people with mental health problems. Concerted action at every level continues to be necessary to banish the blights of bullying and discrimination from people’s lives.