My blog today may be the most important thing I write this year. So forgive me if I seem to be plugging it rather a lot!.
We all have mental health. And we all experience mental distress from time to time. But only some of us (1:4) get mental illness. This 3 1/2 minute video explains it well.
One of the hardest things about mental illness is the stigma associated with it. From society but also family, friends and work colleagues. But most of all from ourselves. It stops us seeking help. For example, people wait a year on average before talking to someone else about their depression. This delay causes great suffering and harm.
Time to Talk Day took place last Thursday, part of the national Time to Change campaign. The purpose of setting aside a day every year is to open up conversations of just 5 minutes between people, and to help each other. I had some amazing conversations via Twitter and face to face with people, including at a reception for the national mental health heroes held by Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister.
You may feel that politicians are jumping on the mental health bandwagon in the run-up to the General Election. But I think that’s OK. Because after the election, we can join together and hold whoever is elected very firmly to account to make sure that mental health services stop being the Cinderella of the NHS that they still are. It’s not enough for politicians to say nice things. We need carefully thought-through policies that make a positive difference, and significant investment in real terms over the life of the next parliament.
Stigma has many other negative impacts as well as on policies and funding. Time to Change have found that, while the public are gradually improving their attitudes towards people who experience mental illness, there has been no discernible improvement of attitudes within the NHS. In fact some people who use mental health services say things have got worse.
This produces all sorts of horrible results:
- People with mental illness can be treated without the compassion and respect that are essential for effective health care
- People with mental illness may not receive the treatment that they need in a timely manner. They may have to fight to get the right care. And they may not even receive the right treatment at all
- The links between mental and physical illness can be forgotten or ignored, causing detriment to people with either or both. For example, people with serious mental illnesses die on average 20 years earlier than the general population, often linked to preventable diseases such as heart and/or lung diseases, some types of cancer and strokes. People are people, not single diseases
- People with mental illness report that NHS staff can have a pessimistic outlook on their life chances, including relationships, education, employment and social contribution
- Staff who work in mental health services can be blamed for things that are not their fault, or criticised for not providing a service when it hasn’t been commissioned or adequately funded
NHS staff who themselves experience mental illness often feel the need to hide it from their colleagues, and when applying for jobs. Mental illness is not seen as something to be proud of overcoming in the way that some physical diseases are portrayed
Part of our #NHSChangeDay #TimeToChange campaign asks NHS staff who have experience of mental illness to consider talking about it with their colleagues. Please be assured, we are not in any way pushing people to do this. We ask anyone who is considering doing so to think about it carefully, and look after themselves, including getting support. There are some good resources here. I know from my own experience how hard making such a disclosure can be, and how significant are the ramifications. But that takes us back to stigma. It really shouldn’t be so hard. And if we cannot be compassionate towards our colleagues who may be experiencing mental illness, how can we, and they, be expected to be compassionate with patients?
When we find ourselves troubled about something that we hold dear, it is human to want to disagree. Or run away. I felt very upset when I first heard the findings of the Time to Change research, and wanted to say no, surely it must be better than this. But then I listened again, and realised that, unless we face up to what has been uncovered about attitudes within the NHS, things will never improve.
If you have 6 minutes to spare, you can watch me talking about it here. Including the long-lasting effect that one nurse’s probably unintentional lack of compassion had on me, also a nurse.
The #NHSChangeDay #TimeToChange campaign aims to tackle this stigma within the NHS head on, with compassion, but also with wisdom and hard work. From it, we are building a programme within Time to Change that we hope will leave a very important legacy for NHS staff and patients.
Whether you are a patient or an NHS clinician, a catering assistant or a Chief Executive, please join us. Everyone can commit to one of our actions or create an action of their own. It’s NHS Change Day on 11th March 2015. And it’s Time to Change.