Friday, October 19, 2007

Tackling mental distress and stigma

I recall many moons ago castigating a policy officer at MIND asking them, “what the hell are you doing about unfair treatment towards people with mental distress in the workplace and the stigmatisation people face when applying for a job”… Reply: Nothing of consequence.

But that’s MIND for you and funny enough a couple of months later I was perusing the letters page in the Guardian and came across castigated MIND officer and an ‘ickle letter she had penned highlighting the problems faced by people with mental distress in the workplace and over stigmatisation. Déjà vu methinks. I wouldn’t have minded but the bulk of the letter included many of mine and others concerns yet MIND (being MIND) never acknowledged the problems in the first place. Do I take this as a back-handed compliment?

MIND were only too happy to put our ideas in print but without any credit to us. Btw: if MIND comes up with a supa-dupa idea then I bet my month’s salary that it came from a bunch of mental health users who are probably part of MINDLink (I am a member, for what it’s worth).

MINDLink is where they ghettoise the users, kinda arms length treatment. We are seen but not heard as MIND knows better (ironically they also have a stereotypical view of mental distress). But they endeavour to use our expertise without real acknowledgement or equality.
Ah, I have got that off my chest. .......

The reason I am having a go at MIND is that them and the usual suspects, Rethink, Mental Health Media (who I kinda like) and some others have come together to form the “Moving Project” with the rather bizarre headline…"If you’ve ever had measles don’t apply"….

I think whoever came up with that in the focus group made a mistake as to make that analogy misses the target completely.

After getting a big wodge of cash (£18m) from the Big Lottery Fund and Comic Relief, this project has lofty plans such:

“Moving People is an ambitious and groundbreaking programme to eradicate the stigma and discrimination of mental ill health”….

They quote statistics such as:

84 per cent experiencing problems in getting jobs, mortgages, healthcare, friendships, relationships (Mind survey, 2004).

55 per cent of young people (NUS and Rethink, 2001) wouldn’t want anyone else to know they had mental health problems.

49 per cent of people with mental health problems have been harassed or attacked

33 per cent of this group report having been dismissed or forced to resign from jobs

84 per cent experiencing problems in getting jobs, mortgages, healthcare, friendships, relationships (Mind survey, 2004).

And……32 per cent of Londoners think 'There is something about people with mental illness that makes it easy to tell them from normal people'

Yeah, ‘cos we have “psycho” inscribed on our foreheads and …what the hell is “normal”? (Someone accused me recently of being “normal”….I was offended!)

Well, it will take more than a 4 year project funded with £18m to educate and challenge the stigma and stereotypes of mental distress. Other plans include anti-stigma campaign, physical activity projects, events focusing on 2012 Olympics (!!!!!), empowerment projects, training professionals, legal challenges and so on.

Now, all worthy stuff but what I would like to say is there is nothing explicitly stated about tightening up the Disability Discrimination Act, the draconian Mental Health Act, Welfare Reform Act, Freud Review and so on……………..Sod events focusing on that elitist jamboree in 2012 but highlight the real problems people face when they experience mental distress.

Also, the media has been instrumental in presenting mental distress in a negative light (“mad”, “bad” and “dangerous”) and the emphasis on that leads to stigmatisation, stereotyping and lack of insight. Similar with television, majority of scripts show mental distress as a “violent disorder”. And with the changes in the Mental Health Act this has led to a knock-effect that has worsened and reshaped understanding of mental distress. And during the past 10 years negative views on mental distress have worsened. I can see one uphill struggle…..

Regarding employment, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. First John Hutton and now Peter Hain is putting the thumb screws on the so-called “work-shy” yet nearly two-thirds of employers say they wouldn’t touch someone with a mental health problem with a 6 foot barge pole. Yet again, the onus is on the less powerful in this society while the powerful are being let off the hook. Also, if they are looking into discrimination and the workplace, they should be involving the trade unions (actually from my own experience trade unions could do with a good dose of education around mental distress).

The other component to this project is involving carers and service users. Service users will be part of developing this project using skills and knowledge. Involvement in training professionals and giving first hand experiences.

I hope they will respect and listen and take note of the views of service users. But I am sceptical as I have seen similar laudable projects before where service users are encouraged to participate under the illusion they will be taken seriously. Unfortunately, many times it hasn’t been the case and instead you end up feeling tokenistic and nobody is really listening. You kinda end up taking a backseat but on paper it looks impressive though reality is different.

The best people to understand stigma, discrimination and victimisation are people with mental distress. I hope this project realises that it should be service users at the forefront easily visible, treated equally and with respect not wheeled in at the last minute to give a touching tragic testimonial to a group of professionals with the organisers being all patronising and desperate to pat you on the head. I have seen that countless times and that in itself is depressing. Service users have the ideas on how to educate and develop understanding. We are the experts and that in itself is empowering.

Here endeth the rant (well, it’s therapeutic to talk….that's if you can get counselling on the NHS).