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Mental health: Challenging the stigma and ending discrimination

February 11, 2016

It’s estimated by MIND and other charities in the UK that one in six people will experience a mental health problem in any given year – a conservative figure according to Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former chief Spin-Doctor.

In the North-East research reveals that one in four have a mental illness, ranging from clinical depression, bi-polar disorder to severe anxiety. In Newcastle 45,848 adults aged 18-64 have short and long term mental health conditions. Both universities in the city note that there has been a steady increase in the number of students who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act due to Psychosis. Generally, disclosure of the illness is only identified when the student is at crisis point. The vast majority don’t come with a previous history of the condition and the absence of an effective support network plays an important role in this.

Mental illness, which has a number of manifestations, has replaced unemployment, as the region’s largest social problem.

More people with mental health issues were drawing DLA benefits, than there were jobless people on the ‘dole’ in 2013. The World Health Organisation indicates that clinical depression will be the second most common health condition both in the UK, and elsewhere in the world by 2020.

Mental ill health costs some £105b each year in England alone. So depression is not only bad for overall happiness, it’s bad for GDP too.

Alarmingly, citizens with a severe mental illness die up to 15 years younger than their peers in Britain, and there remains a clear link between mental ill health, bad housing, unemployment, family problems, poor education, learning disabilities, crime, alcohol dependency and loneliness. Men’s suicide rates have been soaring in the last five years running above 6,000 a year! All this is compounded by stigma and discrimination.

Negative stereotypes still persist about those suffering from depression and other mental health problems. It’s argued that people with a mental illness are more likely to commit crime and harm others. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many victims of street crime tend to be people with mental health issues, according to the annual British Crime Survey. And few are a danger to society.

Much has been achieved by charities such as Rethink Mental Illness and the Time For Change campaign to break down stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness.

But perhaps, one of the biggest and bravest attempts to highlight this issue was the decision of four MPs in 2012, including Durham North MP Kevan Jones, to describe their own experiences of depression. Moving accounts from all four attracted a lot of positive public support and helped to move mental health higher up the political agenda. Both Labour and the Lib-Dems have pledged full support to make this a key public issue.

During the same year, Newcastle Councillors from both parties, drew on their own personal experiences (myself included) of this condition, in a constructive, educative and informed debate in the council chamber – an excellent example of cross-party working and thinking on one of society’s most pressing issues.
As Campbell, who had a serious nervous breakdown 25 years, rightly points out, depression is a horrible illness for which there’s too little understanding. He says: ‘’The nearest I can come to describing it is that when it strikes you feel dead and alive at the same time.’’

But more needs to done to challenge negative labelling and mental health discrimination. To their credit, some larger employers in the region, such as Newcastle Council and NCG have designated themselves as ‘Mindful Employers’. Sadly, it’s still the case that some employees who disclose having a mental health issue at the workplace experience indirect discrimination, harassment and bullying from inexperienced and ill-informed line managers.

Moreover, there’s a clear case to toughen up the Equality Act, which offers some legal protection from discriminatory practices at work, by bringing in a Anti-Mental Health Discrimination Act and making all employers fully aware of their ‘duty of care’ to disabled employees.

Too often mental health services provided by the government are patchy, and treated like a ‘Cinderella service’. According to Campbell in his book, ‘The Happy Depressive, only a quarter of those suffering from mental health issues such as depression or anxiety are getting any kind of treatment or support, and that usually means drugs. One of the country’s top experts on the condition, Richard Layard in his important work, called the Depression Report, recommended training an extra 10,000 clinical psychologists and therapists to provide cognitive behavioural therapy for those suffering clinical depression, through 250 local treatment centres, providing courses costing £750.

This would save the state millions of pounds in disability benefits and lost tax receipts.

Newcastle Council reaffirmed its commitment to those experiencing mental health issues. The Council believes it has a key role tom play in improving the mental health of everyone and tackling some of the most entrenched inequalities. Mental health should be a priority across all functions of the authority and all councillors should play a positive role in championing mental health on both an individual and strategic basis.

Improving mental health should be seen as an integral part of an holistic well-being approach to citizens who live, learn and work in the city. But above all, we need to stamp out ignorance, prejudice and discrimination, both in the workplace and wider community.

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