The stigma around mental illness is decreasing. Every year surveys show that people with mental health problems are experiencing improving public attitudes towards mental health. This is great news and it’s something I see around me all the time. The headlines around mental health are changing for the better. We have celebrities talking about mental health and politicians standing up in parliament telling us about the time they suffered with depression. There’s more to be done but we’re making progress and that’s cause for celebration.
But the same surveys tell us that the stigma people experience from health professionals hasn’t been changing in the same way. Now, that has to make us stop and listen. I suspect the reasons are complex and I don’t pretend to fully understand them. But I do want to be a part of helping to improve the experience people are getting. That’s why I wanted to help Time to Change with this campaign when I heard about it.
I work in a general hospital in London. Many of the people we see are in crisis. It’s a busy job and it’s not uncommon for the team to have more to deal with than we have hands on deck. I also know the people I work alongside are some of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve met. They’re in the job because they really do want to help people. They may well have suffered mental health problems themselves. Almost certainly they will know friends or family who’ve been touched by mental ill health – mental illness is that common. So how should we respond to the news that people are still experiencing stigma from health professionals?
I like to focus on things that we can all do. One of the wisest things I’ve heard was from a doctor teaching about empathy. New students often sound a bit robotic when they’re trying to show empathy – understandable when you’re doing something for the first time and are asked to empathise on tap with an actor and a group of other students watching! This teacher taught the students to think how they’d respond if they were hearing a friend telling them the same things. You could see the penny dropping.
However busy it gets taking the time to make sure people have been heard is always time well spent. In fact, I’ve always found that it’s the small things that make the biggest differences. Telling people my first name and asking what they prefer to be called; Checking if people have had anything to eat; Offering to make a cup of tea; Always stopping to think, ‘if this were a friend or family member, how would I be responding?
I’ll be doing those things as Time to Change launch this important campaign. I’ll also be looking out for suggestions from people responding to the campaign, trying to think about what else I can be doing better. And, of course, I’ll be celebrating the good news that stigma in society is decreasing year on year.