Mental health stigma doesn’t just damage lives – it takes them too.


Despite the fact that 1 in 4 British adults experience at least one mental health problem every year, there remains a huge reluctance to talk about mental illness.

A recent report by the charity Rethink Mental Illness revealed that over a third of the annual 100,000 ‘avoidable deaths’ in the UK are amongst people with mental health problems. These figures do not include suicide, but are because people with mental illness are more likely to die from problems such as cancer, heart failure and diabetes.

Mental health problems increase exposure to the leading risk factors for these types of disease – including weight gain and tobacco use. It is highly concerning that over 40% of all tobacco is consumed by people with mental health issues, and that people with severe mental illnesses – like schizophrenia – are dying 20 years younger than the average population.

I have recently written to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to call for action on this issue. The government’s current strategy to reduce avoidable deaths does not properly tackle the link between mental illness and avoidable death. This must change if the target to reduce the burden of preventable deaths in the country by a third is to be achieved.

In his conference speech, Ed Miliband spoke about the pressing need to do better in this area. He pledged that the next Labour Government will integrate mental, physical and social care services to create ‘whole person care’ for the future. This could go a considerable way to addressing the issue of untreated physical problems in people with mental illness.

But it’s not just in government policy that action is needed. The recent case where Asda and Tesco were found to be selling offensive ‘mental patient’ fancy-dress outfits showed that there remains a significant cultural problem of ignorance and stigma around mental illness. Perhaps even more telling was the abuse that ex-footballer Stan Collymore received on Twitter when he called them out.

I joined Stan in speaking out on Twitter against the stigma on mental health that surfaced following this case. More must be done to tackle these pervasive attitudes so that people realise that people with mental health problems don’t look like fancy dress costumes – they look like anyone else.

I was glad to see both Asda and Tesco withdraw the products and apologise, but this episode drew attention once again to the worrying stigma that continues to surround mental health in British life. At the moment there is still widespread reluctance to speak openly about mental illness and, if progress is to be made, that has to change.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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