Our attitude to mental illness has improved significantly in recent years, but there is still much to be done.
As a society, we've come a long way towards becoming more understanding and accepting of mental illness. The most recent National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey found that the public outlook towards people with mental health problems has improved by six per cent over the past three years, while a record number of people in England said they would now be willing to live, work and have a relationship with someone who has experienced such a problem.
But now is not the time for self-congratulatory back-slapping. It's the perfect opportunity to recognise that while major improvements have been made, we still have a long way to go.
How do we feel about mental illness?
The National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey, published by mental health campaign Time to Change, uses a number of statements to assess public reactions to the one in four people in the UK who experience a mental health problem each year.
The improved attitudes identified by this year's study coincide with an increase in the proportion of people with loved ones who have had a mental illness. Some 65 per cent of respondents said they know someone close who has had mental health problems, up from 58 per cent in 2009 – a trend that could be related to the decrease in stigma and increased levels of openness surrounding mental health.
More than two-thirds of those surveyed also said they would now know what to say to a friend to encourage them to get help for their mental health problem.
What's more, there were clear signs that society as a whole is becoming more open-minded and understanding of mental illness. An overwhelming 91 per cent called for the adoption of a more tolerant attitude to mental illness, while 78 per cent agreed that people with mental health problems have for too long been figures of ridicule.
How can we improve our attitude to mental health?
Of course, it's extremely positive to see the improvements we've made as a society when it comes to supporting and understanding people with mental health problems. But it's also clear that there are ways in which stigma is still attached to mental illness.
According to the Time to Change survey, which was carried out by TNS and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London, nearly two-fifths of respondents would describe someone with mental health problems as being prone to violence. In reality, people with mental illnesses are significantly more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of crime.
However, employment is the biggest area in which our attitude towards mental illness still needs to improve. For instance, a significant proportion of people have concerns about discussing mental illness in a working environment. While 40 per cent said they would feel comfortable talking to their employer about their mental illness, a greater proportion – 48 per cent – said it would make them feel uncomfortable.
Why it's important to address mental health in the workplace
It's disappointing to learn that mental illness is still considered by many to be a hard-to-discuss topic for the workplace. This is especially concerning given that nearly half of all long-term absences from work are down to mental health issues.
People who have been out of work as a result of mental illness are often worried about going back. Common fears include returning to work too soon and becoming unwell again, and facing discrimination or bullying upon their return. Indeed, a report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists warns: "Many people with mental health problems fear that, no matter how good a recovery they have made, their symptoms will be made worse by going back to work."
Sadly, these fears appear to have some foundation in reality. Populus surveyed 2,006 adults in employment and discovered that among those who disclosed a mental health problem, one in five were either sacked or forced out of their job.
If handled properly, a return to work after mental illness could actually have a hugely beneficial effect. Paid employment can lend people a sense of purpose, increase the size of their social circle, and decrease the amount of time they spend alone, which can reduce feelings of loneliness that could prompt further mental health problems.
It should also be pointed out that it's in the best interests of employers to address – and, if necessary, enhance – their approach to mental illness. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, mental health costs the UK economy £70 billion a year, equivalent to 4.5 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, mental illness is estimated to cost employers an annual total of £26 billion, or an average of £1,035 per employee. Put simply, we can't afford not to improve our attitude to mental health.
Good Mental Health
Medacs Healthcare are currently running a 'Good Mental Health' campaign aimed at raising awareness of Mental Health in the UK and stimulating the conversation. To find out more check out our page www.medacs.com/goodmentalhealth
or visit our locum psychiatry jobs