Brits find it harder to ‘come out’ about mental health problems than being gay, having cancer, having drink problems or being bankrupt – confirming mental health is one of our last big taboos.
In a brand new survey of over 2000 British people, nearly 30 per cent said they’d find it hard to ‘come out’ publicly about having a mental health problem; compared with just over 20 per cent who said they’d feel as awkward about coming out as gay. It confirms what campaigners have been saying – mental health problems really are one of society’s last social taboos. Many people say the stigma and silence around mental health problems, which affect 1 in 4 of us at some stage, can be even harder than the illness itself.
The survey, which was commissioned as part of the Time to Change campaign, found that people find it harder to go public about having mental health problems than they do:
- Being gay
- Having a drink problem
- Going bankrupt
- Being diagnosed with cancer
And the perceived stigma that makes it hard to ‘come out’ may be justified. The new Time to Change research shows almost 3 per cent of the public think that someone who has had a mental health problem can’t do a responsible job. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a separate study found fewer than four in ten employers say they would feel able to employ someone with a mental health problem. Ironically, 85 per cent of employers who have taken someone with a mental health problem on say they’re very satisfied. The figures don’t add up – but they do reveal what’s at the root of the problem – stigma, and the mistaken idea that once you’ve had a mental health problem you won’t be able to contribute. The figures paint a picture that reflects a Britain where mental health problems can stop you getting a job, having social interaction and getting on with life – because they are so stigmatised.
And the stigma extends well beyond the boardroom – into the bedroom. People are four times more likely to say they would break off a romantic relationship with someone who gets severe depression than do so because a partner has a physical disability. Attitudes to schizophrenia are even worse, with 20 per cent of British women saying they break up with someone who was diagnosed with schizophrenia compared with just 1 per cent who said the same about their partner becoming physically disabled.
Celebrity supporter Ruby Wax, who has had depression, says:
"It used to be the ‘C’ word – cancer – that people wouldn’t discuss. Now it’s the ‘M’ word. I hope pretty soon it’ll be okay for everyone to talk openly about their mental health without fear of being treated differently. We need to take the stigma out of mental illness. People with mental health problems shouldn’t have to be afraid of losing friends, relationships or even their job because of it."
Tom Bayliss, who has had depression and is gay, says:
"I’m Asian, I’m gay, and have faced discrimination – but not for the reasons most people think. It was actually when I got depression that I faced most discrimination. My boss at the time was very unsympathetic and made it clear that my decision to attend counselling was, in their opinion, unnecessary and self-indulgent. In comparison I haven’t faced these sort of reactions because of my ethnic background, or my sexuality. I think it’s fantastic we have come so far as a society in many ways, become less discriminatory, but we have a long way to go on mental health. For me it’s been the biggest taboo and one of the hardest things for me to ‘come out’ about. I have been surprised by how outdated attitudes have been when you do ‘come out’."
Sue Smith, who has had depression and cancer, says:
"When I had cancer my workmates rallied round. They were supportive and it helped me get through it. After treatment the cancer went into remission. However, a few weeks after being told this I was diagnosed with reactive depression. It’s odd but people found it much harder to deal with my depression than they did my cancer. Those same work colleagues dealt with that illness very differently. The support disappeared overnight and I ultimately lost my job. I felt really let down. It is still difficult to think of that time, to recall the prejudice I experienced when I had a mental health illness, compared to a physical illness. I made a full recovery and have become a Governor of my local Foundation Trust to help change people’s attitude towards those suffering from mental health problems."
(Source: National Association for Mental Health UK: March 2009)