Stigma is one of the most significant problems encountered by people with mental ill-health-Dan Neville TD President of the Irish Association of Suicidology and Chairman Fine Gael – Dail Eireann
Deputy Dan Neville: I know mental illness is not a disability and that disability is not mental illness, but there is an alignment in the area of stigma and I wish to deal with this aspect. Stigma can be deeply hurtful and isolating. It is one of the most significant problems encountered by people with mental health problems. At another time it was also there for those who suffer from disability, but thankfully this has moved on. What we now must highlight that it is so important that the stigma which surrounded disability 40 or 50 years ago, and which surrounds mental illness now, moves on. Learning to live with a mental health problem is made more difficult when someone experiences the prejudice caused by stigma around mental ill-health.
Stigma can be used to exclude and marginalise people. The prejudice and fear caused by stigma can even prevent people from coming forward and seeking the help they need, which is especially true about young people and particularly young males. Stigma stops people offering help to or being supportive of people who suffer from mental ill-health. This is especially the case within families, which are not prepared to accept they should seek help or to advise a member of the family to seek help if he or she has a crisis or a mental ill-health problem.
Stigma often inhibits people from getting the jobs for which they are qualified and I will speak about this later because I have some statistics. It can prevent people with mental health problems from playing an active role in their communities. There is an economic cost to this because people who have a mental illness can contribute to our economy. There are also significant social and personal costs. People with mental health problems consistently identify stigma, discrimination and social exclusion as major barriers to their health, well-being and quality of life. Stigma can and does contribute to limiting access to housing and employment, damaging social relationships and social participation and reducing self-esteem,
When we speak about stigma we mean using negative labels to identify people with mental health problems. This used to be the case with regard to people with a disability, but thankfully this has moved on. Stigma has its roots in fear and misunderstanding. Many people hold negative opinions towards people with mental health problems because they do not understand the issues involved and they rely on myths and misconceptions. International research and policy documents identify stigma as one of the most persistent barriers to understanding mental health problems and the importance of mental health and well-being.
I wish to discuss some work and research done in this area. In September 2012, St. Patrick’s Hospital conducted research on how the general public perceive people with mental health problems. We must bear in mind when people are asked the question about how they feel about mental health that they are likely to underestimate the level of stigma because they wish to be positive. A total of 20% believed those with mental health problems were below average intelligence. A total of 40% considered that seeking help for a mental health problem was a sign of personal failure. A total of 66% experienced reluctance to hire a person with a mental health problem, believing them to be unreliable. A total of 30% would not be willing to accept somebody with a mental health problem as a close friend.
Do we ever hear about a child waiting for six months or 12 months for a psychiatric intervention or a psychiatric assessment? We do not because of the stigma that prevents people talking about it. I personally am told about it because I am identified with the issue, but if we are not told about it, we do not demand our Government or our political system to do something about it. In other words the reason that mental health has not been dealt with over the decades is that there are no votes in it. We need to raise the issue as a political one. I raised this when I was first elected to the Dáil many years ago and it was the first ever debate on a Private Members’ motion on suicide. It has been debated quite often since then, but not as regularly as most health issues. We should bear in mind that one in four people at some stage in their lives will suffer from a mental health problem. It is an issue that should have more political attention.