On the morning of July 6th 2012, a 42-year-old man scaled the heights of the Arndale car park in Manchester. After 5 hours of police negotiation, he took his own life.
Hundreds of concerned spectators and citizens from all over Manchester and Greater Manchester flocked to the Internet to send their messages of condolence; others, however, took to the message boards inflamed.
Throughout the course of the day, I was one of many who followed this story, reading a variety of different tweets and posts that kept me informed on the initial reaction to the incident. As a person who has had some limited experience with mental health issues in the past, diagnosed with depression at 19 years of age, I could do nothing but recoil at the discrimination and lack of understanding that I saw expressed, via social media.
In the 21st Century, a decade that has seen, in many ways, great advances in attitudes & tolerance to sexuality and disability (in which mental health is included), I was appalled to see such a response so prominent online. The tweets to which I am referring not only appeared to be mocking the man, but had also openly criticized him for his actions, due to his suicide having been carried out in public. One such tweeter, who shall remain anonymous, stated their view plainly, arguing that ‘suicide in public is selfish and unnecessary’; whilst another meanwhile bemoaned the length of time the man took to decide whether to take his life or not; ‘why did he have to ruin every one’s day taking 5 hours to decide to jump #selfish’.
There are many other examples that I can draw on that make remarkably similar statements, showing that some of the public are still uneducated to the effects of mental illness on an individual.
But discrimination against those with mental illness has never been solely reserved for message boards, or even isolated to incidents like the above; it is prevalent within society. An article from 2008, entitled ‘Time to Change’ states, ‘nearly nine out of ten people (87%) with mental health problems have been affected by stigma and discrimination’; whilst 73% have stated that they ceased taking part in an activity for the very same reason. This is something that I can relate to from my own personal experience, as I have often felt reluctant to reveal my diagnosis to anyone outside of my immediate family, for fear of judgement or exclusion. My fear being arguably attributed to the often out-dated ideas people hold towards mental illness. These out-dated ideas are in many ways due to a deficit in our understanding of what constitutes mental illness, how it effects upon the individual suffering from said illness; and also finally, a lack of understanding of how common mental health issues are within society as a whole.
In answering the above, it is perhaps easiest to start with the definition. Mental illness and mental health problems are umbrella terms that cover a broad range of disorders. It covers anything from mood disorders, such as bipolar, depression, or mania, to eating disorders, psychotic disorders, and anxiety, amongst many others. It is also incredibly common, and affects roughly 1 in 4 people within any given year, representing itself in a variety of different ways, subject to the respective illness. It is the frequency of mental illness that perhaps best demonstrates why discrimination, relating to the patients of mental health disorders, should be tackled. This is because the stigma attached in many ways deters those suffering from the symptoms of mental illness from seeking treatment, something that can be incredibly damaging to the individual in the long run. In fact, my own road to getting diagnosed wasn’t the easiest. I was at first, like many others, deterred by the stigma that accompanied such a label, and also frightened at the prospect of both friends and colleagues finding out. But with the assistance of close family however, I was finally convinced to seek out the guidance of a GP; something that many others in my position have failed to do, primarily due to fear of the discrimination they might face.
A startling statistic, cited by the Mental Health Foundation, states that British men are three times as likely to die by suicide than British women. This is incredibly alarming as it shows the effects of stigma upon the treatment of depressed individuals; men being the sex less likely to receive or even seek out such treatment. Whilst I know if not for the treatment I received my quality of life would have been impaired to a noticeable extent, in other instances this omission can be fatal for the individual. This is not to say treatments are always successful however; though as noted by my particular case, as well as the testimony of many others, it can be. Therefore, individuals suffering from depression ought to be enabled to seek out these treatments without the fear of shame or discrimination; this is so at least one road to recovery is left open for them in their time of need.
One way of reducing this discrimination, which many have attempted, includes petitioning for new legislation. This is especially relevant, as shown by the contemporary efforts of Mind.org in their support for the ‘Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill’. This bill, which has received almost unanimous support so far, hopes to alter several pieces of legislation that are out-dated, or openly contribute to a stigmatized view of mental illness. One of the most shocking pieces of legislation is the ‘Companies (Model Articles) Regulations’, passed in 2008, which states that a person might cease to be a director of a public or private company by reason of their mental health. The bill proposes, in this case therefore, to prohibit employers from being able to exclude those with mental health issues from these senior positions. In addition to this, it also covers two other areas as well, including: fighting for the right of a person with mental illness to perform jury duty; and also for an MP to keep his seat, if he has been previously sectioned for a period of more than six months. This can be considered to be a vital step towards removing preconceived notions about mental illness, such as the belief that sufferers can no longer be trusted to integrate peacefully within society, or that they may also never recover to lead a normal life.
Legislation on its own is not enough however; even if we successfully remove the barriers that stigmatize mental illness, education is the only true way to remove the ignorance that surrounds many of its disorders. This, and only this, can develop an understanding between those who do not suffer from mental health issues and those that do; and should be pursued by means of several open and frank discussions about the many varied illnesses, in schools, as well as in multiple different work environments. This is so that we can avoid insensitive material circulating, such as in the stated case above, where social media displayed the unsympathetic attitudes of those online, towards a man who had taken his own life.
Growing up, I had also been exposed to other examples of discrimination against those with mental illness, even dating back to the time before my diagnosis. In this case it was from a contemporary at school, the individual having openly ridiculed those with depression as being ‘pushovers, who need to get some perspective in their life’. Needless to say, this statement said more about the individual than the group he had sought out so harshly to generalize, highlighting, in particular, his own ignorance when it comes to the emotional affect of mental illness on the patient’s life. This is because it is about as useful as telling someone suffering from a cold to ignore their symptoms as it is to tell a morbidly depressed individual to ignore their thoughts. This is a fact that many still choose to ignore, and also something that must be altered in order to remove the negative attitudes expressed towards the sufferers of mental illness.
If we were to educate individuals, such as the one above, to the alarming effects and commonality of mental health issues, it would make a significant start at reducing the frequency of said attitudes. This is important as the above shows a huge misunderstanding of mental illness, contributing therefore to the stigma associated with mental health issues. With the arrival of the ‘Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill’, perhaps there is finally hope that one day those that suffer from mental illness will not be deterred from treatment, discouraged by out-dated ideas and unjust discrimination. Although an effort to educate is arguably also needed, it is a step in the right direction; something needs to change.