I recently took part in an anti-stigma photoshoot for The Sun newspaper. The shoot was in connection with the Time To Change campaign, a major initiative from the mental health charities Mind and Rethink. The idea is to get people talking openly about mental illness, in the hope that open conversation about the reality of mental illness will help to reduce stigma and discrimination.
Is the Time To Change campaign working? Founded in 2009, the campaign has now spent five years tackling stigma, but are there any noticeable differences in the real world?
Reports have been published that show the campaign has made a small but significant difference in England. Attitudes are improving. In this blog post I want to add my take on the situation to give a perspective ‘from the ground’, as someone living in England who suffers from a mental illness.
My main observation is this: The Internet and in particular social media are making a real difference to the way mental illness is perceived and discussed. I’m a big fan of Twitter. I feel as though it is a great place to connect with people with similar interests. In particular, it is a great place to connect with other people with mental health problems. And there is a real community of mental health campaigners on Twitter; people who club together to challenge stigma and offer support and advice.
Thursday 6th February, for instance, was ‘Time To Talk’ day, an initiative launched by Time To Change with the aim of starting a million conversations about mental illness (and thus challenging stigma). The campaign was really successful, with the hashtag #TimeToTalk becoming the number one trend on Twitter at certain times throughout the day. This was a fantastic achievement, showing that awareness really is being raised.
Pretty much every mental health related organisation now has a presence on Twitter. You can follow these organisations and interact with them which gives a real sense that there are like-minded and supportive people out there. All of this discussion challenges stigma.
Online forums are strengthening mental health communities and challenging stimga. There are now loads of forums where people can start or join in discussions about their own experiences of stigma and discrimination, or any other mental health related issues.
For instance, the first discussion group I joined was LikeMinds, a Facebook counselling forum set up by a friend of mine at the community interest company Transmission UK. The group brings together counsellors and psychotherapists with people who experience mental illness. Anyone with a genuine interest in mental health is welcome. What a great idea!
More recently I joined another online community called Elefriends. Run by mental health charity Mind, the site is similar to Facebook (i.e. it is a social network) but everyone on the site has an interest in mental health. The site is populated mainly by people who have mental health problems, and it’s a very supportive community – a great place to express feelings and get help when you’re struggling.
Social media forums help to challenge stigma by giving people places where they can chat openly and in confidence about their mental health problems.
Television is also helping. Not long ago Channel 4 staff signed up to a Time To Change pledge to help end mental health discrimination. This was part of their ‘4 Goes Mad‘ television season, which featured a range of high profile shows and documentaries about mental illness. The BBC are also helping and ran their own season of mental health programmes called ‘It’s a Mad World‘ last year. And there are other examples across other networks. It feels as though the subject of mental illness is getting more positive coverage on television than ever before.
Politicians are also speaking out. In 2012, for instance, there was an article in the Daily Mail explaining how various high profile politicians had spoken openly about their experience of mental illness for the first time. These included Labour MP Kevan Jones who has suffered from depression, Conservative MP Charles Walker who has suffered from OCD, and Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who has suffered from severe post natal depression. With high profile and respected figures like these opening up about mental illness, discussions are started and stigma is challenged.
All in all, it seems that discussion about mental illness in the media is picking up speed, and that the quality of that discussion is improving. The article in The Sun that I was featured in last week shows that even the trashiest tabloids are willing to give positive coverage to mental health issues.
I hope and pray that the media will keep contributing to the discussion and challenging the stigma and discrimination that still surrounds mental illness. Things are improving, and the Time To Change campaign is working. People with a mental illness are real people who have a great deal to offer, and that’s the message we want to continue to get across.