Stigma of mental illness? Alive and well - RSA

Stigma of mental illness? Alive and well

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  • Mental health
  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

The stigma of mental illness is alive and well. Despite the fact that campaigns like Time to Change have been working hard to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people with mental health conditions, it seems that it’s still all too easy to casually slip into a culture of blame.

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A short article in the Guardian published this morning reported the results of a study that indicated a link between being a child of parents with mental health problems and being at risk of harm. That such a link exists is troubling, and our response to this ought to emphasise the need for better provision of support where it is needed most.

Maev Kennedy’s piece starts with very much the wrong tone, with the sub-heading: “Report by Ofsted and Quality Care Commission reveals that 30% of adults with mental health problems have children.” This reads as though a shocking number of (by implication) irresponsible and dangerous parents with mental health problems have children, and really ought not to.

Kennedy doesn’t make a comparison with overall figures for having children. The stats are a little difficult to decipher, but my interpretation is that roughly 39% of couples across the population have children, so what is striking amongst people with mental health problems is that the proportion having children is significantly lower.

The case example Kennedy chooses to provide is that of a mother whose children “were only taken into care when their mother went into hospital” going on to describe a woman who had not showered for six months, rarely left the house and spent most days asleep. It sounds as though this woman was suffering from crippling depression, and was in desperate need of proper help and intervention, not for her children to be taken into care as soon as she began to show signs of distress.

Kennedy’s piece finishes with the damning line, “although an estimated 30% of adults who experience mental health problems have children, there is no national obligation to notify relevant authorities or collect information on how they are coping.” This almost makes it sound as though having a mental health problem is akin to being a paedophile, and that some sort of national register should exist to monitor the parenting abilities of anyone who experiences difficulties with their mental health.

My guess is that the piece was written quickly and that its author probably did not intend to produce an article that exhibits stigma and has a tone of judgement and blame. However, it is this type of subtle stigma that perpetuates damaging stereotypes and allows marginalisation and othering of people with mental illnesses to continue.

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  • Thank you so much for this Dawn. I absolutely agree with you that the broad-brush picture of chaos and neglect is so far from the truth of how peoples' lives actually are. And, of course, if you're close to someone with a mental health problem, you see the person first, not the illness - it doesn't make sense to separate them. Your daughter's comment in response to being asked what it's like to have a mum with bipolar captures this perfectly: "I don't know" says it all.

  • Totally agree Emma. The cut backs in journalism staff at the Guardian beginning to bite? No subtly in this piece, and as though all mental health conditions are the same...

  • When I spotted the Guardian article my heart sank - again! I'm afraid I'm not so forgiving as to say that the author didn't intend to produce something which perpetrated stigma, I think they did, because they believe in what they are writing.

    My daughter read the article, she's 18 and currently studying A'Levels with a view to reading medicine next year. I asked her what she thought and she said that she was once asked "what is it like to have a mum who is bipolar?" She had replied. "I don't know, she is my Mum, she loves me, we have a great relationship, but she's a lot more than someone with bipolar!"

    How to the children of parents who have encountered mental ill health ever feel confident about speaking of it to their peers when articles such as this paint a picture of chaos and neglect?

    It's sad, and I know I am fortunate in that my children were able to understand mental ill health through my determination that it wouldn't be a spoken of in hushed tones, Have they suffered? They've been upset to see me unwell, but then they've been concerned when I had bronchitis.

    My son, a Firefighter, said the worst thing he ever heard, and the thing that upset him the most was at the age of 12 hearing a neighbour yell at me in the street "You are f*cking mental, you psycho".

  • I think that such articles you have referred to will make more people with mental illness hesitant to come forward and ask for help for fear of being judged. Far too often people paint descriptions of a population of individuals with such large brush strokes that it masks the individuality of each member. Thank you for writing

  • Great article. Thanks for writing this, I felt like the only one being offended by it.

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