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Why do we need to talk about mental illness, shame, stigma and inequality?

This is the first in a series of blogs from Emma Marks, Senior Socio-Economic Duty Project Officer. 

As someone who has both worked in mental health and as someone who has experienced periods of mental ill health, this World Mental Health Day I have written a series of reflective blogs about my experiences, particularly through the lens of how intersectional inequalities impact on both the reported incidence of mental ill health, as well as access to treatment. We know that mental health is worse in countries, such as the UK, where the gap between the richest and the rest of us is high and entrenched; and we also know that our racist, patriarchal and ableist society exacerbates the stigma and shame of poor mental health for those with protected characteristics. 

However, in the UK mental illness is viewed as an individual problem, as sticking plaster treatments are offered to those suffering, with little thought given to the external context of structural inequalities of income, wealth and power. If we are really serious about tackling mental ill health, we need to dismantle structural inequalities and build a more equal society where we can all flourish. 

I recently read a blog from a mental health at work website promoting the benefits of a holiday abroad on mental health. I can concur that looking back on holidays abroad my mental health was indeed thriving by the time I returned. However, what was omitted from this “advice” was that for a great many people even having a holiday in this country is but a distant dream. This is the issue I have with mental health organisations and services who don’t place mental health within an intersectional inequality framework. People from less economically advantaged backgrounds do not have access to the same mental health services and wellbeing resources as others. 

We know from mental health statistics that mental health inequality exists across protected characteristics and economic disadvantage. If we don’t acknowledge this, we risk placing the emphasis of mental health problems on individual pathology – aggravating and perpetuating a cycle of shame, stigma, discrimination and illness. As someone who has experienced mental health problems throughout my life, I am very familiar with this cycle. However, throughout these 25 years of varying mental health I have gradually been able to view my illness within a socio-economic context. This has been integral in helping me to reduce my shame and quicken my recovery after every subsequent relapse.

It is essential that for this year’s World Mental Health Day we discuss the socio-economic context of mental health problems so that we can provide more equitable support and access for those of us who experience mental health problems. I will be exploring this, and my own experiences, in further blogs this week.