Mental Health Stigma

Despite the increase in publicity surrounding mental health and mental health issues, there is still a lack of understanding about mental health in general. For example, a research survey published by the government “Attitudes to Mental Illness 2007” reported that 63% of those surveyed described someone who is mentally ill as suffering from schizophrenia, and more than half believed that people with mental illness should be kept in a psychiatric ward or hospital. Overall the results showed that positive attitudes to people with mental health had actually decreased since 1994 which is worrying indeed.

Amazingly, many people still don’t understand that mental health problems affect most of us in one way or another, whether we are suffering from a mental illness ourselves or not. If we bear in mind that a quarter of the population are suffering from some kind of mental health problem at any one time, then the chances are, even if we personally don’t have a mental illness, we will know someone close to us who does, so it is our responsibility to understand what mental illness is and what can be done about it.

Many people with mental health problems will often feel isolated and rejected and too afraid to share their problems with others purely because of the way they might be perceived. This lack of understanding means they are less likely to get the kind of help and support they need and are in danger of slipping even further into depression and mental illness. People need to understand that mental illness need not be a barrier to a better quality of life and that help is available and that most people with a mental health problem can regain full control over their lives if they get the support they need.

A new guide to mental health

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a new guide to mental health which was published in November 2007 and is aimed at informing the general public about what mental illness is and is a big step towards tackling the stigma that is still attached to mental illness.

The guide is written in an easy to understand format and over 60 mental health experts have contributed to it. The Mind: A User’s Guide contains chapters that cover a whole range of mental illnesses and includes a section on how the brain works, how mental illness is diagnosed, and how to cope with it.

A Scottish survey

In Scotland, a national survey of public attitudes to mental health Well? What Do You Think? (2006) was published in September 2007 and highlighted that although people living in socially deprived areas have a higher incidence of mental health, the level of stigmatisation is still no lower than in other areas. This suggests that being confronted with mental illness is not enough to change the attitudes towards it.

There are also gender differences too. According to the Scottish survey, men with a mental health problem were more likely to be treated with suspicion than women and were also more inclined to avoid social contact with someone else with a mental health problem. Even out of those who displayed a positive attitude towards people with mental health problems, many said they would be reluctant to tell anyone if they had a mental health problem themselves which just goes to show that there is still fear surrounding other peoples’ perceptions of mental health.

A CIPD Survey

A recent study conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and KPMG consultants surveyed over 600 employers and reported that doctors are not doing enough to help people with mental health problems return to work and that this is costing the business world billions of pounds. For example, only 3% of the participants rated doctor support as “very good”.

It may be that doctors really don’t know what else to offer someone suffering from depression and anxiety other than drugs and time off work. Even more worrying was the fact that 52% of employers maintained that they never hired anyone with a history of mental illness which serves to perpetuate the stigma. On a more positive note, of those that did hire someone with a mental health problem, more than half said the experience had been “positive”.

Changing attitudes

A lot is being done by governments and organisations to try to change public attitudes towards mental health but is it enough? Until we all recognise that mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect any one of us at any time regardless of our age, gender or social background, the stigma attached to mental illness is likely to persist.

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, it can affect any one of us at any time regardless of our age, gender or social background, and yet the stigma attached to mental illness still persists. Although a number of government initiatives, awareness campaigns and organisations have been set up specifically to tackle mental health stigma and change our attitudes towards mental health in general, there is still a long way to go.

It is therefore up to each and every one of us as individuals to make sure we are well informed and understand the issues involved because only when the public are fully aware of the facts will mental health stigma become a thing of the past.

Exercise, Physical Activity and Mental Health

Exercise and physical activity play a crucial role in both maintaining one’s mental health condition and in recovering from a mental illness. Breaking research indicates that exercise actually produces a chemical that stimulates the growth of brain cells, thus allowing for recovery from sever substance abuse disorders. Furthermore, physical activity and mental health recovery coincide in fostering a social network and encouraging self-reflection, both of which are crucial on the path to mental health recovery.

The human mind evolved in an environment which required it to travel over twelve miles daily. And no, that drive to work in the morning does not count…but that would make things easier, no? This evolution was due to survival instincts when humans migrated from the jungles into the flatlands. Humans also developed an adrenaline reaction which both encouraged movement and triggered immediate learning reactions; as Doctor Carl Clark from the Mental Health Center of Denver once stated, when early man saw that saber-tooth tiger charging out of the brambles, the neurons must have been firing pretty fast to teach them to stay away from the bushes next time…that is assuming their get away was fast enough to allow for a next time!

This adrenaline rush encouraging learning has become neutralized by the flow of activities in modern western societies, wherein the normal individual is seemingly on a constant, albeit generally unnoticed, adrenaline rush. Consequently, stress levels have continuously been on the rise, consequently decreasing the rate at which an individual learns when in a compromising situation, thus decreasing mental wellness levels.

Physical activity is a huge aid to mental health in the fact that exercise allows for a stress outlet, thus decreasing day-to-day stress, while creating functional adrenaline for the mind. In reality, physical activity is important for mental health due to its role in creating Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which is a key factor in the creation of brain cells. The myth of the old days is past; you know the one, where once your brain cells are gone they are gone. Well such is not the case, physical activity and exercise can increase BDNF levels and allow the re-growth of brain cells, consequently making physical activity immensely important for mental illness recovery.

Exercise and mental health further coincide in regards to the alarming statistic that people with mental illnesses, on average, die 20 years sooner than mentally healthy individuals. While there are many factors that go into this involved in substance abuse risk factors, two considerations that one would be remiss to ignore is the fact that those suffering from mental illnesses have a tendency to stagnate and become physically inactive. This has resulted in a large percentage of mental health consumers being considered overweight, which can ultimately result in adult onset diabetes. Diabetes is very dangerous in sedentary individuals who, in a depressant state, care little about taking care of themselves, for such a medical ailment can result in numerous health related issues, some of which can be very serious.

Physical activity and mental illness recovery are highly correlated. In some of the most successful recovery-based treatment facilities one will find strong proponents of mental health consumers engaging in physical activity. These activities also subsidize the development and formation of a support network populated by individuals interested in similar hobbies. Furthermore, exercise can often be a form of active meditation, and as practitioners of Dialectic Behavioral Treatment (DBT) can profess, meditation, including meditation absent any religious connotations (whether it be active or seated), drives self-reflection which is crucial to mental health recovery; for more information on the importance of self-reflection, you can access my article on Spirituality and Hope in Mental Health.

Stay physically active, exercise and mental wellness are highly correlated. Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent the development of serious mental illnesses, and is also one of the most effective treatment plans. Stay active, stay healthy, stay happy.