Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Addressing the stigma around mental health

Society makes progress in dealing with mental health but it can be painfully slow.

Three or four hundred years ago those who suffered certain types of mental illness faced a real danger of being hanged as witches or tortured and mutilated by the public executioner for blasphemy.

Two hundred years ago you could go to certain of the most infamous of the places where people with mental illness were confined and pay to "torment" the inmates.

One hundred years ago, while the treatment had become slightly more compassionate, society still wanted to put away out of sight those it had labelled as insane and lock them away in huge institutions in the countryside - sometimes not for any real mental illness but as a way of removing from public view people who had committed social misdemeanors. Women who bore a child out of wedlock, or someone from a wealthy family who was caught shoplifting might be labelled as insane and packed off to a sanatorium. The penalty could be more severe than the criminal justice system of the early 20th century would have imposed - as it could effectively be life imprisonment. 

When I was appointed as a health authority member in the late 1980's there were still a few elderly women, now institutionalized beyond hope of discharge, in some of the mental health hospitals in the area who had been sent there for bearing an illegitimate child.

By that time the NHS was moving towards "care in the community" which is a policy which I strongly supported then and now as long as it does mean care and not, as has occasionally happened here and in other countries, chucking people out of the front door without a proper package of care in place. But there was real resistance at the time from people who assumed anyone with mental issues is dangerous. A very small proportion of mental health patients really are dangerous,  and society needs to be protected from them, but most are not.

We continue to move forward, but there is still a stigma about mental health which makes it difficult for many people suffering from stress, depression or other such conditions to seek help, and although governments of all parties say they want mental health to be taken as seriously as physical health, we are some way off achieving this.

The local newspapers picked up some comments I and others made on the subject at the last Health Scrutiny meeting - you can read their report of the meeting in the online version of the Whitehaven News at

Cumbrian health committee hears call to end stigma around mental health | Whitehaven News

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