I was shocked by the results of the NatCen’s British Social Attitude survey (reported here) which showed how the British public react to people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses. The findings revealed a severe lack of understanding for those who struggle with their mental health and the reality of living with a mental illness. My shock was quickly followed by disappointment in us as a society. Although there is a greater awareness of mental health as something that affects us all and the 1 in 4 statistic is getting far more press, the findings of this survey showed me that we’re nowhere near where we should be.
During the survey researchers described someone experiencing depression and another experiencing schizophrenia. The participants were asked to think about how comfortable they would be with these people in given circumstances. In the case of schizophrenia, 90% said they wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving their children with them. 78% said they wouldn’t feel comfortable having them marry into their family and 44% said they wouldn’t want them as a colleague. When it came to depression the statistics were lower but far from good. 82% said they wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving their children with them. 64% wouldn’t feel comfortable having them marrying into their family and 35% wouldn’t want them as a colleague. The study also measured how comfortable the participants would be living next door (55% for schizophrenia/29% for depression) and socialising with them (45% for schizophrenia and 32% with depression).
I hope these statistics astound and shock you as much as they did me. To me this study shows just how misunderstood mental illness continues to be. With the World Health Organisation estimating that 450 million people worldwide are affected by mental health problems, this is hardly something we can ignore or continue to sweep under the carpet. With various studies revealing that 1 in 4 of us in the UK will experience a mental health problem in a year we can say with confidence that almost all of us will be impacted directly or indirectly by mental illness. Many of us already know someone who struggles with their mental health and may have a diagnosis without us ever knowing about it. The above statistics paint a picture of a society who is out of touch with what is going on around them.
I do wonder about how mild or severe the portrayal of mental illness was provided in the study. I can understand that a depiction of someone in the throes of a severe experience of schizophrenia or depression could make people uncomfortable and wary about their capacity to look after children. BUT many people live with their mental illness on a daily basis and manage it alongside living a full life. Yes, some people may suffer severe episodes where they may not be fully functioning and may need extra support in a variety of ways, that doesn’t mean that is always the case. For example, 25% of people will recover fully after a first episode of schizophrenia. Many of us during our lives will go through periods of ill health where we may be unable to work, look after ourselves and/or families or socialise as we normally do. Does that mean because of those individual occurrences we should be isolated or untrusted?
If anything, I think I’d be more uncomfortable around someone with an infectious physical illness than around someone suffering from a mental health problem. A huge misconception I come across is that mental illness is catching; it isn’t. Another is that those suffering from mental illness are violent. Again this is not true and it isn’t helped by the media portrayals of mental illness. In fact, a Time to Change study revealed that 63% of references to mental health in TV soaps and dramas were “pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic”. Above and beyond this, those suffering from mental illness are more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator. According to the same study by Time to Change, the majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems.
So where does this misconception of violence come from? This is where the media is to blame. One of the more recent cases is the stabbing in Russell Square last week. Various reports initially highlighted mental illness and terrorism as the cause for the death of a woman in her 60s and injuries of 5 others at the hand of a 19 year old. In an effort to downplay terrorism, I assume to prevent fear-mongering, the police highlighted mental illness as the key problem. This led to an article in The Independent that rightly used the headline “Mentally Ill people are the collateral damage of news reports about the Russel Square stabbings” (read full article here). The article charted how mental illness was used to allay fears of terrorism. This included a response by the former head of Counter Terrorism and Public Order for City of London, Kevin Hurley, who claimed that similar acts of violence can happen “at any day of the week, in any street in our cities because there are lots of mentally disordered people who should be in hospital and who are out and about”. This horrifies me. Hurley’s archaic thinking clearly links acts of violent crime to those suffering with mental illness imagining ‘crazy’ and out of control people who need to be institutionalised. This evokes medieval ideas about asylums and straight-jackets; not something I would expect to hear nowadays. It’s people like this that do our society a severe injustice. I am ready to accept that some acts of violence are caused by those with mental illness. But it’s important to highlight that this doesn’t mean it is the cause of their actions. There isn’t a causal link between mental illness and violence. Pointing the finger at everyone who experiences a mental illness and blaming them for acts of violence crime is wrong. It’s scapegoating.
If nothing else, headlines in the media, which often over-exaggerate when a mental illness is in play, should evoke empathy from us as a society not vilifying a group of people. It should make us think more carefully about what we should be doing to help. Hurley’s vision of those who are not in hospital running amok – which is completely unfounded – should highlight the severe lack of services for those suffering from mental illness. We’d never accept waiting 40 weeks to receive help for a physical illness. Why do we find it acceptable for a mental illness? At the end of the day the divide shouldn’t be physical vs mental illness. It’s all illness, it’s all health and it all needs more attention and support.