One day mental health stigma will be a distant memory

Back in 2014, the team at Time to Change held a round table event that forced those of us who care about NHS mental health services to face an unpalatable truth. Which was that 1 in 3 people who used services experienced lack of compassion and even stigma from where you would least expect it, those working in those very same services. This finding has been repeated several times, and featured again in last week’s Mental Health Taskforce Report.

In August 2015, I wrote about how this made me feel and about the Time to Change project I volunteered to chair here. And about the negative reactions it initially invoked here.

Now it’s time to pop my head above the parapet again.

Along with some amazing people, including 4 experts by experience and senior colleagues from our 2 pilot sites Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS FT and 2Gether NHS FT, we have carried out some action research directly with NHS staff to explore what gets in the way of compassionate care and the shifts in attitude that are needed.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. But we have learned a lot, especially about what works. And this week we are launching a campaign within 6 volunteer mental health trusts, which include our 2 pilot sites plus 4 others. From the early work with our pilots, we know that staff value time out in a safe place to talk about attitudes and values, and to discuss why sometimes they fall short of providing care to a standard they aspire. The materials are being made available online via Time to Change across the whole NHS.

I want to make a few things clear from a personal perspective. We won’t shift attitudes by finger pointing and blame. The people at Time to Change know this. Their approach is positive, supportive and empathetic. They know what they are talking about. They have achieved measurable, sustained success in shifting public attitudes over 7 years of work. Our project with NHS mental health professionals builds on the same approach, tailored to local circumstances.

We are acutely aware that staff who work in mental health services are under greater pressure than ever before. We know this from the hard-hitting findings in last week’s Mental Health Taskforce Report. Our project doesn’t deny this. But we are operating in the real world. And we have to start where we are now.

Stigma is an ugly word. And the stigma of mental illness is deep-seated and far-reaching. It manifests in the way mental health services get side-lined. Two weeks ago, my old boss Lord Nigel Crisp published his report about access to mental hospital beds. With charm and precision, Nigel ticked off Nick Robinson on the Today programme for trying to change the subject to the junior doctors’ dispute.  Nigel pointed out that it was illustrative of the very problem mental health services face, lack of sustained attention. And whilst the Mental Health Taskforce Report got top billing on the day it was published, we also know that it will disappear without trace unless we all stop talking and actually do something to turn mental health into a priority.

Not all journalists are guilty of stigma. I thank Shaun Lintern at HSJ, Andy McNicholl of Community Care and Michael Buchanan at the BBC for their sterling work uncovering swingeing cuts over the past four years, which some still deny despite the evidence laid bare.

Stigma exists amongst some politicians and parts of the NHS. The rhetoric of parity of esteem has been trotted out whilst at the same time commissioners, faced with unpalatable choices, are allowed to disinvest in those services people are least likely to make a fuss about, i.e. mental health. And not just in the NHS, but also the third sector, where much vital provision has been wiped out in recent years and is at least in part the cause of the current mental health bed crisis besetting most of the country.

The unkindness I experienced many years ago from a nurse in A and E is repeated across acute hospitals and other parts of the NHS daily. I recently heard an acute trust chief executive say this: “These people don’t belong in A and E.” (My italics).

So who exactly are “these people”? They are people like you and me. And people like him think we are undeserving. And many, including him, still believe being mentally ill is somehow our own fault.

Our Time to Change project isn’t aimed at tackling everything at once. We have to eat this elephant together, in bite size chunks. Working with Time to Change and supported by NHS England, I know we can succeed.

Lisa Rodrigues CBE

Writer, coach, mental health campaigner. And a recovering NHS Chief Executive

This piece also appears today in the Health Service Journal

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2 comments

  1. In years to come I hope that people will be amazed such terrible stigma existed over mental illness as more research, currently woefully thin on the ground, brings insight and more effective treatments into mainstream healthcare.

    It’s a pity that sometimes 2016 can feel like the dark ages to anyone unfortunate enough to be mentally unwell.

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  2. An attempt to get a little bit more suicide and self harm awareness in local A&E’s via an informational poster failed as the poster was swiftly binned in all 3 departments. These are places where I’ve suffered some appalling judgemental attitudes from staff as a repeat attender.

    Plan B from our project was to get in via training courses so we started running a morning session for emergency practitioners. There were 3 m h professionals and myself as an expert by experience. Right from the start there were people there who just did not want to know – asking questions like at what point can we turn away a frequent self harmer – they were a lost cause. But on the whole most of these already qualified nurses and paramedics seemed genuinely to want to understand better. It was not so much stigma as lack of knowledge. According to the forms they came away a whole lot wiser about suicide and self harm.

    Education education education

    And having been on the receiving end of a psychiatrist repeatedly saying ‘and people like you do this’ ‘and people like you behave this way’ a little less stigma from that direction too would be nice

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