I might be suffering from a severe lack of self-awareness, but I think I’m a pretty OK colleague. So, I talk too much, and my voice is a bit too loud, and I was once – probably fairly – banned from eating pickles at my desk by the girl who sat next to me. On the whole, though, I think I’m alright.
But, according to 2016’s NatCen British Social Attitudes survey, 44 per cent of people would be “uncomfortable” at the idea of working with me. This isn’t because of my admittedly slightly disgusting desk-eating habits, but because 44 per cent of people would be uncomfortable with the idea of working with people who have experienced symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia. A further 78 per cent said they’d be uncomfortable having someone with symptoms of schizophrenia marry into their family, and 90 per cent would be unhappy with them looking after their children.
Depression doesn’t fare much better: 82 per cent said they “wouldn’t feel comfortable having someone with depression look after their children” and 64 per cent said they “wouldn’t feel comfortable having them marry into their family”.
The statistics may seem shocking – one in four people experiences mental-health problems at some point in their life, after all, so you would have thought we’d be used to the mentally ill by now. Twenty-four per cent of people have experience of mental-health problems – 8.2 million people in the UK suffer from anxiety; up to 10 per cent of people experience depression throughout their lifetime. At any one time, 280,000 people are being treated for schizophrenia by the NHS. The chances of you knowing someone with a mild to severe mental-health problem is extremely high.
But, for those of us who have experienced this stigma, the figures come as no surprise. A (now ex-) friend of mine once expressed concerns about my being around her newborn baby, not because she was worried I’d drop him or that he’d pick up profane language from me once he started to talk but, because I was an ex-self-harmer who’d experienced psychosis, there was the chance I might hurt him.
People still associate psychotic symptoms with a level of violence when, in actual fact, people with schizophrenia are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it
Anti-stigma efforts like Time to Talk and Rethink Mental Illness are great, and are slowly helping change the lens through which we talk and think about our own and others’ mental illness. But examples like my friend, and the figures from the NatCen study, highlight that this stigma is about more than just linguistics and has a real-world impact, too. My friend thought I had the capacity for violence not because I was a violent person – which, obviously, I’m not – but because of the way she conceptualised my illness. To her, “psychosis” meant “violent”; it meant “dangerous” – maybe it even meant “criminal”. I’m none of these things and neither are most of the millions of people who experience mental illness at any given time.
Although depression is still highly stigmatised, illnesses like psychosis bear the brunt of this inaccurate stereotyping. As the NatCen figures show, people still implicitly or explicitly associate psychotic symptoms with a level of violence or danger when, in actual fact, people with schizophrenia are actually more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. One study even found that those with the illness are actually 14 times more likely to be victims of violence in the community. Media attitudes towards schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses are partly to blame here – mass-media coverage of crimes committed by the mentally ill fail to reflect the reality of living with mental illness, warping the narrative to an incomprehensible point.
And I have some bad news for you all: we are married into your families. We look after – and have – your children. We work with you, and we socialise with you, and we do all of the things you’re hypothetically uncomfortable with. We often do this without you even knowing, because mental illness doesn’t necessarily look or feel the way that stigmatising stereotypes say it does – I don’t have an inherent and uncontrollable capacity for violence like my friend assumed I might, and people with depression aren’t necessarily difficult to work with or likely to crack under the strains of a job.
It’s important to remember that, while the way we talk about mental illness is definitively changing for the better, we still have a long way to go. We need to continue, and ramp up, our destigmatisation efforts and not get complacent because we’ve made progress in certain areas. Just because we’re much happier to talk about our mental illnesses than we were 10 years ago doesn’t mean that the conversation we’re having now is perfect, nor that we should settle for it.