November 2, 2011

Unhappy birthday cakes for schizophrenia's 100th anniversaryIt’s now 100 years since the term “schizophrenia” was first used, but with so many people affected by the condition still getting a raw deal in almost every area of their lives and still suffering from stigma and discrimination, sadly it’s not much of a happy anniversary.

I work for the media team at Rethink Mental Illness, and we decided to mark the occasion with an Unhappy Birthday Schizophrenia event at Liverpool Street Station in London, complete with cupcakes and a jazz band. It was an opportunity to raise awareness of the problems people with schizophrenia face, and to tell people about the work we do, including the Time to Change campaign.

Best of all, it was a chance to have a really frank and open discussion about mental health with people from all walks of life and all kinds of backgrounds. It’s often said that one in four people are affected by mental health problems, and yesterday’s event really brought this home to me – all kinds of people flocked to our stall to chat to us about their experiences of mental illness. Some had direct personal experience. Others had a sibling, parent or partner who was affected by mental health problems. The lorry-driver who delivered our cake stall told us about his sister, who is currently receiving treatment for psychosis. A woman who was on her way to visit her mother in a psychiatric ward stopped to talk about her experiences as a carer. A man who has bipolar disorder, and was on his way to a support group meeting, approached us to find out more about what we were doing.

We met hundreds of other people who had similar stories. I got the feeling that people were genuinely pleased and pleasantly surprised to see the words “mental illness” on large banners and posters in such a public place – and that it was something of a relief to them to be able to take some time out of their day and chat about it.

What was also really pleasing was the massively positive response we got from people who haven’t been personally affected by mental health issues, but who were keen to find out more. We spoke to around 1,000 people – bankers, teachers, cleaners, social workers, pensioners, students, tourists, lawyers, musicians – and we didn’t receive a single negative or hostile reaction. As you’d expect, some people were more interested than others, and some people were probably only really interested in getting a free bit of cake. But I was taken aback at how open the huge majority of people were to talking about mental health, and by the compassion and interest they showed when they were approached.

A team of activists were on hand at the event, all of who had personal experience of mental illness. We all know how important it is for people without experience of mental illness to have contact with someone who does have that experience – and how this can have a really big impact on behaviours and attitudes towards mental health. Some of our activists have endured horrendous discrimination because of their mental health problems. But they were all were really touched by the response they got from random passers-by – the positive reaction they got was a huge relief and hugely gratifying for them. Perhaps this shows that the Time to Change campaign, and the work done by the two charities behind Time to Change, Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, is really starting to gather momentum – that we really are starting to see a genuine shift in people’s attitudes to mental illness.

Click here to send David Cameron an Unhappy Birthday card with 5 birthday wishes for schizophrenia.

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