There has been an improvement in public attitudes to mental illness, but there is still more work to be done, according to a new report commissioned by anti-stigma programme Time to Change.
The research, which was funded by the Department of Health, brings together nearly two decades worth of data looking into the adult population’s perceptions of people who experience mental health problems.
In the latest report, which surveyed 1,727 people, trends show that women’s attitudes towards people with mental health problems have improved more rapidly than those of men since 1994.
Increasing tolerance of mental illness
There are also differences by age, and as people get older they show increasing understanding and tolerance of mental illness, while younger people show the lowest levels of wanting people with mental health problems to be socially excluded.
The data shows that acceptance of people with mental health problems taking public office and being given responsibility has grown. Also, attitudes towards integrating people into the community have generally improved since 1994 alongside a marked increase in the number of people saying they know someone close to them who has had some kind of mental illness – from 58% in 2009 to 63% in 2012.
Room for improvement
But the latest survey also shows that there is still much room for further improvement with more than a third of people still agreeing that a typical description of a person who has experienced a mental health problem is someone who is prone to violence. This has gone up by 6% in the past decade.
Overall, understanding and tolerance is shown to be generally high over the 18-year period and of the statements that were asked in the survey, some have improved but a few have dropped back. There was a 4% drop in agreement with statements including ‘people need to adopt a far more tolerant attitude toward people with mental illness in our society’ and ‘people with mental health problems have for too long been the subject of ridicule’.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said: “It’s encouraging to see the progress we are making in changing the attitudes and intended behaviour of the general public. It’s particularly positive to see that people are more willing to live, work and continue a relationship with someone who has experienced a mental health problem than they were in 2009.
“However, we know that we still have a long way to go and it is saddening to see that the myths surrounding people with mental health problems and violence are still prevalent. We’ve seen real progress but we know to change social norms permanently and significantly this needs long-term continued effort and investment.”
Paul Jenkins, CEO of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, added: “It’s great to see that overall, mental health stigma is decreasing every year. This really matters because it means more people will feel able to be open about their mental health and won’t have to suffer in silence. We are concerned however that the number of people linking mental illness to violence has gone up. The mistaken belief that violence is a symptom of mental illness is one of the biggest myths and it’s hugely damaging, especially for people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia.”
Keep working to address stigma
Overall, according to the Institute of Psychiatry’s analysis of the data, there was a 1.3% improvement in attitudes towards people with mental illness by the general public between 2011 and 2012. Intended behaviour also improved by 1.6% in the same year.
Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, concluded: “It’s positive to see that people’s attitudes towards those of us who have a mental health problem are moving in the right direction but we know there’s still a long way to go.
“We’ve secured some great gains over the last 18 months, which shows how much things are beginning to change in the way that we perceive mental illness. For example, the four MPs who spoke in Parliament in June 2012 about their personal experience, the mental health seasons that major broadcasters ran this year and last, and the increasing amounts of people in the public eye using their position to raise awareness.
“Unfortunately, whilst we’re making progress we’re also working hard to counter some negative representations like the recent supermarket Halloween costumes, which reinforce the need to keep working to address stigma whenever we see it.”