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We’ve come a long way

19 February 2014
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Mental health has never been more relevant. There’s been public outrage about the level of cuts to mental health services: The Guardian recently reported that the NHS currently allocates just 13% of its resources to treatment of mental health problems, despite these problems accounting for 23% of disease burden in England. Campaigns such as the current Time to Change programme, which aims to end mental health discrimination, demonstrate that there is still much work to be done in separating fact from fiction and preventing stigma. However, it’s worth also reflecting on the progress that has been made.

Forster has a heritage of carrying out pioneering communications work around this issue. As well as developing the Time to Change brand, we were instrumental in developing and implementing MindOut for Mental Health, a three year anti-stigma campaign that was the first of its kind in this country. The audience-specific nature of this work was fundamental to its success. The campaign targeted three key audiences. The first was the media: unacceptable terminology was prevalent and sensationalized reporting commonplace.  We worked with the National Union of Journalists to put together an editorial guide educating writers on how to report suicide and use appropriate terminology. We also ran workshops with student journalists, with a mental health service user explaining the impact of such careless reporting as The Sun’s now infamous ‘Bonkers Bruno’ headline.

The second audience was employers, with many employees unable to discuss mental health issues for fear of being perceived as weak. We partnered with organizations such as The Work Foundation to encourage better support. Finally, it was important to educate and engage with young people, who are formative in creating change. The Mind Out campaign toured a photography exhibition, which featured people sharing their stories and experiences – many of them celebrities and public figures, such as Alastair Campbell.

It’s now difficult to imagine national newspapers reporting with such insensitivity, or public figures feeling unable to disclose mental health problems but of course, such problems persist and will continue to.  The reporting around the recent decision by England cricketer, Jonathan Trott, to return home early from the Ashes due to stress related illness showed how attitudes in the media have changed for the better.

But we can never stop re-examining the issue. Social media has brought its own problems, from cyber-bullying to lack of privacy; but as ever, it’s important to be aware of sensationalizing such issues, as well as considering the right channels to reach the people who might be affected. Forster worked on the launch of Black Dog Tribe, an online community for people affected by mental ill health, where forums and blogs are a source of support, advice and information. Mental health and employment continues to be a difficult area. Forster works with Business in the Community on their Workwell programme; a coalition of businesses committed to improving levels of understanding of the role of workplace wellness.

In order to continue communicating with credibility and sensitivity, we can’t afford to get complacent about the potential obstacles, barriers and stigmatism around mental health. Funding will always be a problem, but attitudinal change, although in some respects intangible, should be measured and monitored as far as possible. We need to employ well-informed audience insight and careful evaluation to build upon our strong foundation and continue to make change happen.