Breaking down the stigma

Posted: Sep 30, 2020

A message from our Executive Director, Dr Patricia Tumelty, as featured in the Jersey Evening Post

At a time when slogans such as eat out to help out are popping up alongside slogans urging us to slim down, diabetes expert Professor Taylor’s new book Life without diabetes has many useful tips for losing a stone in 2 weeks. Included are descriptions on how to tell the difference between boredom and hunger alongside a list of 24 spices and 33 vegetables to store in your kitchen. Whilst this list will no doubt help many people wile away a couple of hours planning delicious and complicated recipes but cost aside, I have real concerns about the mind and cupboard space needed to achieve this. The fact that Amsterdam seems to be one of few cities successfully reducing obesity rates has led many including me to speculate why this is so. Some argue that it is because policy makers sent people into the community to help explore and describe the challenges. I also think it is because they took a systemic approach to the issue of obesity and looked at all the factors that may be influencing what we put on our plates rather than reducing obesity to one factor or cause often referred to as personal choice.

As someone who has grappled for over thirty years with how to effectively ‘do ‘community engagement in ways that does not patronise or disempower people this seems a hopeful example of a project that makes a helpful and sustained difference to people’s lives. Moving back to work in the field of mental health at Mindjersey after more than two decades away, I am reminded of and noticing the cruel impact of stigma in action on a daily basis. Although people from royalty to footballers are talking openly about their mental health, I am not convinced this is always going in the right direction. There seems to me to be a real need for those of us shaping services to find out what people really think and for more people with lived experience to share their stories and educate the public about what it is really like to live with enduring long-term mental health conditions.

Just as we now know we have to think of novel ways to treat a virus that hopped out of a species into a human, so too we need to continue to think of more novel social and community ways of reducing stigma so that people are able to ask for help. And just like we need to respond calmly and safely and put things in place rather than react when the virus spreads, so too there is still an awful lot we can all do to respond in ways to combat stigma that is preventing people accessing the right support at the right time. The prolific writer and mental health campaigner Matt Haig in his new book The Midnight library powerfully portrays through his heroine Nora how things would be if we had made different choices in life and whether or not we would do anything different if we had they choice to undo the things we regret. Such big questions about what it is to be human and how at times we all question the meaning of life especially when going through a crisis such as a pandemic were beautifully depicted in the stories I gratefully received as part of our research project at Mind jersey. Over 500 people young and old shared stories about the impact of lockdown on their mental health. Overall, the stories shared reveal how one way or another there will be a long tailback of loss and change for many people. For some people lockdown was a time to find new interests and improve relationships but for others change and uncertainty had a negative impact on their mental health. Lessons learned by some people included the need to keep talking and to remember that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Key messages for professionals shaping and delivering mental health services also included an ongoing need to continue to address the stigma surrounding mental health so that people young and old can access help and support for themselves and their families.

Reading through the stories I am reminded of how given the opportunity people want to connect with their communities and to tell their stories. I hope when people read the short report in full which will be distributed to coincide with world mental health day that this will help more people to share stories and feel they are not alone. At Mind jersey we will to continue to find ways to change minds and narratives about mental health and mental illness and to change lives because whilst Covid remains a scary word mental illness need not and should not be.