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Mental health? We’ve barely started

By Martin Barrow

17 May 2016

People remember the headline ‘Bonkers Bruno’ from the Sun, one of the saddest and most misguided headlines ever published. But the article that was printed beneath it was just as corrosive. It described the retired boxer Frank Bruno as “a nutter” who had been “locked up”.

We have come a long way since those days in 2003 when the infamous Sun front page was published. Significant progress has been made in reducing the stigma of mental health as well as deepening the understanding among those who report about mental health in the media. Today it would be considered unacceptable for a newspaper to describe mental illness in those terms.

This month at Forster we are celebrating our 20th anniversary.  We are proud of the part we have played in changing attitudes towards mental health, which includes our work to create and run the Mind Out for Mental Health campaign for the Department of Health. This laid the foundations for Time to Change, England’s biggest programme to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination, for which we developed the brand.

Time to Change has reached millions of people, helping to transform the way society thinks about mental illness. There has been a step change increase in positive attitudes since the campaign was launched in 2007 and its influence is still powerful, helped by the amplified voice of millions of service users, their families and friends through social media.

Now, when a supermarket like Asda includes straitjackets among its Halloween merchandise, the public is likely to unleash a storm of protest. When inappropriate language and images are used in the media, the criticism is instant. Politicians and civic leaders are proud to work with mental health charities like Mind, Sane and Rethink Mental Illness to bring about improvements in the care and support provided by the NHS, social services and the police.

In the House of Commons, MPs Kevan Jones and Charles Walker spoke out about their own mental health problems, and Baron Stevenson of Coddenham in the House of Lords brought about significant changes in the law to end discriminatory practices. In government Norman Lamb and Alistair Burt have championed mental health, setting the tone for the independent Mental Health Taskforce’s Five Year Forward View, which last autumn set ambitious targets to improve mental health care provision.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have embraced the new openness around mental health, supporting charities including the Anna Freud Centre (who we also work with) and speaking out against stigma to encourage understanding and compassion. Their commitment is reflected in the launch of the Royal Foundation initiative Heads Together, named as the London Marathon 2017 charity to benefit mental health.

So much more needs to be done, particularly to improve the delivery of mental health services. The significant improvement in public attitudes towards mental health helps to maintain pressure on the NHS and social care commissioners to keep their focus on the drive towards parity of esteem for physical and mental health.