Mental Health and Stigma: We have a long way to go

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The murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox, and the subsequent arrest of Thomas Mair, has brought – amongst other things – the issue of mental illness to the forefront of public debate.

The killing itself, the motivations, and the political allegiances of Thomas Mair, can be speculated on, and discussed elsewhere.

What I want to look at is the repulsive spewings of the phalanx of internet armchair experts, who would have you believe that they know everything about mental illness, everything about the mental state of Thomas Mair, and everything about his fitness to stand trial.

Revealing their own prejudice and ignorance when doing so.

What has become painfully evident since it was revealed that the alleged killer of Jo Cox, Thomas Mair, has ‘mental health problems’ is the disgusting attitudes of people towards those who suffer with poor mental health.

I fully expected bigotry and a wilful lack of understanding from elements of the reactionary right. I did, however, expect better from so-called progressives and people I consider to be political allies. Some of the terms and phrases I have heard friends and people I have respect for, use; have been cruel, ill-considered, and fundamentally wrong.

Have you ever considered that one of the reasons that mental health care services are grossly under-funded and do not have the same parity of esteem as other fields of health care is because the ‘general’ public – despite rhetoric to the contrary – are not quite as bothered about it?

Of course, you are free to disagree, and no doubt will. However, one of the ways in which we can gauge the public’s attitude towards mental illness is the nomenclature used when they discuss it.


As the issue of mental illness is a key element in the coverage of recent events it has become a significant area of discussion on social media.

A cursory glance across various social media platforms has revealed the widespread use of the following terms –

psycho, nut-job, loony, lunatic, schizoid, nutter, mentalist, disturbed, mad, possessed, insane, demented, psychotic, freak, retard, bonkers, crazy, psychopath, wacko.”

You will of course realise that we do not have a similar lexicon of slurs to describe and denigrate people with cancer, pneumonia, or heart problems; nor would we tolerate it if we did.

Look at those words again. Ask yourself if you think they are acceptable; ask yourself if you have ever used them; ask yourself what you say or do when you hear others using them; and then ask yourself if you really do think mental health care deserves the same respect and provision as physical illnesses.

Stigma and the lack of respect that comes with it has consequences. Consequences for the individual, their ability to access treatment, lead a fulfilling life, and consequences for service provision.

If you cannot see that, or contribute to the stigmatising of people, then you are very much part of the problem.

When challenging one individual over her use of demeaning language, I was told to –

“Get over yourself it’s nothing to do with mental illness. It’s just every day parlance.”

Exactly! That is the problem, in a nutshell. It is so natural for some people that they have never considered its impact.

Predictably at times such as these; the Daily Mail brigade stamp their feet and demand that something be done about the ‘hordes of mentally ill folk who are running around killing people.’

Yet of course, they have little or nothing to say about the 500+ murders committed in the UK every year, by people who do not suffer from a mental health problem; and have even less to say about the 6,708 people that took their own life, last year.

I won’t speculate on the mental health of Thomas Mair. Needless to say, I have never met him, nor is it any of my business.

However, to the armchair experts, I say this – Everyone is different. No two people with the same illness experience the same challenges. It is not just about the nature of an individual’s illness, it is also about the degree, support networks, and a whole host of contextual factors.

Don’t assume – as many have – that being unwell means that you cannot function to a high level, or undertake complex tasks. Most people whose experience of mental illness is beyond watching ‘One flew over the Cuckoos Nest’ would understand that.

Don’t assume that because someone does something horrific that they ‘must’ be mentally ill. Plenty of people manage to engage in violent or criminal acts and do not have a mental health problem. It may even come as a surprise to some that people who suffer from poor mental health are more likely to be a risk to themselves, than others. You won’t hear much about that. As it doesn’t fit with the sensationalist media narrative.

Don’t assume that an initial decision to charge or commit for trial is a cast iron indicator that someone is not unwell. Many individuals are taken through the criminal justice system and only diverted to mental health services ‘after’ they have been sentenced. This could be for several reasons that are too complex to discuss here.

Look beyond the ridiculous caricatures propagated by Hollywood and the gutter press, of what an individual who suffers from poor mental health, says, looks like, or does. It’s not something that just happens to ‘other people’s families’, its everywhere.

Mental illness has always been perceived as ‘something that happens to ‘other people’, yet 1 in 4 people across the UK will experience a mental health problem of some description during their lifetime; with between 8-12% of the population suffering from depression in any given year. The facts of the matter are that everyone, directly or indirectly, will be affected by mental illness.

Events this week have really opened my eyes to the atrocious attitudes and lack of understanding around mental health problems. I knew they were under the surface, of course; I just expected better from sections of society that I would have thought more enlightened and understanding.

It should come as no surprise that people are unwilling to seek help or discuss their problems, when society treats them so badly.

Mental illness is one of the great health problems of our age, yet it will never receive the respect it deserves or the resources it requires in order to tackle it, as long as the narrative around mental illness is one of stigma, smear, and ridicule.

Mental illness has played a big part in my life. I have my own, albeit relatively moderate, problems. My father died in circumstances brought on by social isolation – which stigma around his mental health played a big part in – and I have been a practising mental health professional for fifteen years. I have seen and experienced – from both sides of the fence – the devastating and debilitating impact of mental illness.

Imagine then; so-called friends, allies, and comrades using cruel and stigmatising language, and weaponising mental illness for political purposes.

I don’t tolerate bigotry in the form of racism, sexism, or homophobia. So I won’t be tolerating bigotry around mental illness.

If you aren’t prepared to listen, educate yourself, identify and ‘own’ your stigmatising remarks and behaviour, then we aren’t on the same side.


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