I’ve always thought that the worst thing about mental health stigma isn’t the prejudice of other people – not that prejudice is a good thing – but the way that our experiences of stigma can lead us to stigmatise ourselves. Even if we are lucky enough to have supportive friends, family and employers, we also need to be supportive of ourselves, and accept who we are and the illnesses we have.
The Time To Change campaign was instrumental in me coming to terms with my bipolar disorder, and moving forwards. Hearing other people – celebrities and ordinary folk – speak out about their illnesses gave me the strength to talk about my own.
One in four people will experience a mental health problem in each year. But that means three in four will not. If you have never experienced a mental health problem, how can you understand what it’s like, properly empathise, or offer support? The chances are the most you will “know” about mental health is the myths. Especially if no one you know talks about their experiences of mental health problems.
That’s why talking is so important. It gives those who cannot personally relate something to relate to. The simple act of having a conversation about mental health challenges people’s stereotypes. It busts the myths that lurk in the headlines. It begins to break the stigma.
My university students’ union signed the Time To Change pledge last year. We ran a campaign to get people talking about mental health. Students were involved. We got some MPs involved who have mental health problems. Staff were talking about mental health, with those at the very top sharing their experiences. The reaction was phenomenal. I didn’t expect the campaign to have such an impact. But it did.
People were talking about mental health. It wasn’t so much of a taboo anymore. Of course, very few students were publicly talking about their mental illnesses. But because people were having conversations, those who were experiencing mental health problems saw that people were less prejudiced and that helped them to stop stigmatising themselves.
People began to feel they could have their own conversations – with family, close friends, the doctor, support services at uni, or me – to realise they could help change the conversation around mental health.
To me, this is the power of talking. The best way that those of us who are in a good place can help our friends, colleagues and family who suffer in silence is to speak out. It gives us all a chance to be supportive towards others, but also to be kind and accepting of ourselves. That way, one day, we can break down the stigma.