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Stephen  Bevan

Mental health stigma and the media

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

09 October 2013

I was in Poznan, Poland earlier this week speaking at an event with employers, psychiatrists, support workers and people living with schizophrenia. I was speaking about the UK experience of supporting people with serious mental illness to remain active at work, based on the research on schizophrenia we published earlier this year. One of the main conclusions of our research was that – in the labour market today – people with serious mental illness suffer more from their diagnosis than from their symptoms, such is the negative impact of stigma.

Yet I was able to present an optimistic picture. Awareness of the prevalence and impact of mental illness is, I believe, improving in the UK. Treatment is also slowly improving and more employers are comfortable talking about what they can do to support employees with episodes of depression and anxiety.

But just as I was encouraging my Polish colleagues to persist in their efforts to support people living with mental illness to stay at work, I heard that (not for the first time) The Sun newspaper was leading with a story which – if all you read was the headline – added to the stigma already faced by thousands of people with mental ill health. My immediate thought was to question if the editorial team had learned anything from the inflammatory way they covered boxer Frank Bruno’s illness back in 2003. This time the paper was reinforcing the stereotype that people with mental illness are dangerously violent. Our friends at Mind have done a thorough job of demolishing this misconception, so I won’t add to the counter-argument.

Suffice to say, with World Mental Health Day tomorrow (10 October), this sorry episode has reminded us all that, despite clear progress, there is still much more to do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. While I understand the commercial imperative which newspapers have, misleading headlines are never acceptable. No matter how widely read or popular their readership is, they must share some responsibility for informing and educating their readers. We need look no further than Express Newspapers for an example of how this can be achieved without resorting to sensationalism. The bleak statistic that over 30% of people in the UK say that they would never work with someone with a mental illness shows that stigma is still very much alive in modern workplaces and this episode does not help.

So, while one newspaper made me look a bit stupid yesterday as I presented to a Polish audience, I remain optimistic that the outrage which has met The Sun’s headline earlier this week can represent a change in the way we talk about mental illness in the years to come.


Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Jordan McAleenan

18 Dec 2013 10:17PM

Although there have been some recent high-profile examples of an attack on the stigma attached to mental health (Tesco and Asda were forced to withdraw offensive ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costumes), I still believe a lot more has to be done. I believe educating the public, especially those at grass root level, on the diverse and challenging nature of mental health would be key in ensuring society with a wider knowledge of this issue. Changing perceptions to explain mental health at a grass root level, perhaps even beginning at Primary School would be important in ensuring that future generations of those suffering from mental illness do not suffer from the same stigma as past generations.