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Do depression, anxiety and other mental illness, carry less stigma than 20 years ago?

| September 27, 2012 | 1 Comment

Stigma associated with mental health is highly damaging to sufferers, causing distress to the individual and their families and often leading to severe marginalisation and exclusion from mainstream society.  The past two decades have witnessed the introduction of campaigns, support groups, and projects; has observed changes in policy, law, and the media coverage surrounding mental health. But this increase in awareness and knowledge has not gone hand in hand with dispelling discrimination and marginalisation of mental health sufferers; stigmatising attitudes and behaviours remain prevalent in our society today.

1 in 4 people suffer from a mental health condition and as a consequence, find themselves discriminated against (SHIFT 2006). But despite the large proportion of society who is affected by mental health, stigma towards this group of individuals is intense and widespread.  Those suffering from mental health issues are on the receiving end of discriminatory actions from the rest of society, including physical and mental abuse.  Many people’s problems are made worse by the stigma and discrimination they experience not only from society, but also from families, friends and employers.

Nearly 20 years ago, a survey by Read & Baker (1996) revealed that of the 778 respondents surveyed, 47% had been abused or harassed in public, and 26% had moved home due to harassment; the reason they were targeted, their mental illness.  In 2003 the CJS introduced a new classification of crime which sought to identify where an incidence of violence or harassment could be attributed to the fact that the victim had a disability (Clement et al 2011).  Despite this development, these hate crimes continue, and many go unreported due to fear of further reprisal and the belief that they will not be taken seriously by the CJS due to their mental illness (Clement et al 2011).

General public attitudes and perception of mental health are equally as damaging and widespread.  Mehta (2009) surveyed 2000 respondents inEnglandandScotlandat intervals between 1996 and 2003.  They found an overall decline in positive attitudes towards mental health over this period, with attitudes being fearful and anticipating danger.  The data fromEnglandduring the period 2000 – 2003 showed a decrease in positive attitudes towards mental health, this coincided with a time when the Mental Health Act was being widely debated inEnglandwith tighter enforcement measures being sought, disproportionate and negative imagery associated with mental health was brought to the forefront of social media.  InScotlandthere was an increase in positive attitudes towards sufferers of mental health issues, which was attributed to coinciding with the See Me campaign, aimed at raising awareness of the facts around mental health issues.

The perceived success of campaigns is varied with some arguing that campaigns are ineffective in altering the stigmatising experiences of those who are targeted (Clement et al 2011).  Others believe that we should work towards a concept of protection against stigma as opposed to attempting to eliminate it (Crisp et al 2000); developments in the Human Rights Act 1998 and The Equality Act 2010 demonstrate that policy makers recognise the need to enforce and defend equal rights for people with mental health conditions (Mind 2012).

The research carried out by Mehta (2009) demonstrates the deterioration of public attitudes towards sufferers of mental health conditions, perceiving them as violent and dangerous.  It highlights the role of the media in mobilising discrimination and social exclusion.  We only need to look at the language used in the media for evidence that it is socially acceptable to ridicule mental illness in ways where it would not be for other minority groups (Jamison 2006).  The media has been and remains a powerful and influential tool in establishing negative stereotypes about mental illness (SHIFT 2006), typecasting mental health suffers as either homicidal maniacs, child like, or of weak character (Corrigan et al 2002).

More recently the media has had a positive role to play; Ruby Wax, Frank Bruno and Stephen Fry are but a few of the celebrities who have spoken publicly in the media about their personal experience with mental health issues, attempting to break down stigma (Mirror News 2009).  In providing this public platform to positive and influential role models, the media have mobilised healthy discussions of mental health into the public eye, views which are grounded in personal experience and centre on factual information.  But whilst this goes a long way in raising awareness and discussion on the topic, stigmatisation continues to be experienced by those individuals who suffer with mental illness (Clement et al 2011).

The medical profession is not exempt from its contribution to stigmatising attitudes towards patients, with attitudes of doctors towards their mental health patients being historically less favourable (Byrne 1999).  Whilst improvements in understanding of mental health patients has been identified amongst psychiatrists in recent years, stigma remains a fundamental barrier to treatment services, it impedes early diagnosis and the potential for recovery leading to further marginalisation from mainstream society (Pinto-Foltz et al 2009).

Measuring stigma is not easy; changes to policy, specific events, media reporting, all affect the way mental health patients are perceived and are subject to change at any given time.  That could be why research into stigmatising attitudes and behaviours remains an understudied topic (Pinto-Foltz et al 2009). From the information that is available, mental health is still widely stigmatised.  The media is playing a fundamental role in addressing this social injustice but there is still a lot of work to be done, and whilst celebrities speak out and desensitise the subject, suffers of mental health issues continue to be victimised and discriminated against.  Over the past 20 years, society has responded to stigmatisation through changes in policy and law to protect the rights of people with mental health problems, and there has been an influx of campaigns to raise awareness and combat discrimination, but the views and attitudes of the wider population remain engrained in negative false beliefs and prejudice.





Byrne P. (1999) Stigma of mental illness: Changing minds, changing behaviour.  British Journal of Psychiatry 1999, 174, 1-2.


Clement S, Brohan E, Sayce L, Pool J, Thornicroft G. (2011) Disability hate crime and targeted violence and hostility: A mental health and discrimination perspective. Journal of Mental Health; 20(3): 219–225.


Corrigan P. & Watson A (2002) Understanding the Impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry. 2002 February; 1(1): 16–20.


Crisp A ,  Gelder M, Rix S, Meltzer H and Rowlands O. (2000) Stigmatisation of people with mental illnesses. BJP 2000, 177:4-7.



Jamison K. (2006) The Many Stigmas Of Mental Illness. The Lancet Volume 367, Issue 9509 533-544.



Mind (2012) The Human Rights Act (accessed 06/09/12).



Mirror News (2009) Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry among stars fighting to end stigma of mental illness:Stars fight stigma of mental illness (accessed 10/09/12).


Pinto-Foltz M. and Logsdon M. (2009) Reducing Stigma Related to Mental Disorders: Initiatives, Interventions, and Recommendations for Nursing. (accessed 07/09/12).


Read, J. & Baker, S. (1996) Not Just Sticks and Stones.London: MIND.

SHIFT (2006) Mind over matter: Improving media reporting of mental health.

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