Looking Beyond Stigma: What's Next for Mental Health Advocacy?

The stigma surrounding mental health conditions has been around for a long time. Indeed, it’s part of our history. Those who had mental illnesses have typically been alienated, ridiculed, pushed aside and in many cases locked up. It’s no wonder then that due to such unjust stigma, many people with mental health conditions hid them for fear of what the consequences would be if they were ever discovered.

There is a growing movement afoot however to end the stigma surrounding mental health. While that’s in itself a fantastic thing… it also brings some growing pains with it. I would argue that society, in particular government and political bodies, have grossly underestimated the impact that stigma reduction is having. A substantial number of people are now no longer afraid to disclose and talk about their deteriorating mental health. They are also actively seeking professional treatment which is obviously their basic human right to do. Nevertheless, governments and our leaders have shown themselves to be woefully ill-equipped and unprepared to deal with this huge demand and new reality.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a global inequality in the distribution of skilled resources in the area of mental health. Also, the financial resources which are needed to increase services are quite low, and drastically tiny in comparison to other physical health concerns. Further, WHO claims there are five key barriers to increasing mental health services which exist:

1. The absence of mental health from the public health agenda and the implications for funding.

2. The current organization of mental health services.

3. Lack of integration with primary care.

4. Inadequate human resources for mental health.

5. Lack of public mental health leadership.  

The summary which is shown above is more than just disconcerting. We have a growing awareness in regards to the devastating impact of mental health stigma… but an inability for our leaders to act. There is a lack of political will and a leadership void. Ironically, as more people open up and seek help for their mental health conditions, less assistance and resources are available due to the inability for supply to meet demand. Hence the ridiculous waiting periods to gain access to treatment programs. Sadly, by the time individuals eventually get that phone call that they will be admitted… it is sometimes too late.

The World Health Organization also specifies that stigma and discrimination against patients and families still prevents people from seeking mental healthcare. However, while this situation still clearly exist — it is improving. For example, the National Attitudes to Mental Illness Survey has shown public attitudes towards mental illness have improved significantly in the last decade. The most in history actually. So while we all certainly know that stigma and discrimination still exist, there is no doubt it is improving, thanks in large part to the many advocates and anti-stigma campaigns.

Considering the variety of information, one is left with a number of pressing questions. For instance, if we are to conclude that the movement to reduce and end stigma is succeeding, which in turn has created a huge demand on an ill-equipped system… then what is our role as advocates? Should we quit and let the leaders of the world catch up? I would respond to such an inquiry with the statement that we need to fight harder than ever. We are making up huge ground with society in general. When you are successful you do not stall the momentum. Notwithstanding, we do need to continue to expand our role and put more pressure on governments and political bodies. They need to become part of the solution to finally ending the stigma surrounding mental health and provide it with the support and leadership which is clearly needed. It is time for them to step up to the plate!

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