Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Mental Health Stigma Reduces the Opportunities for 'Success'

Mind, Body and Soul
What do we mean when we imply that people with mental health issues are not successful, as it is often done in some of the psychological literature on the effects of depression on agency? A very powerful talk by Dr Victor Pace (Consultant in Palliative Care at the St Christopher's Hospice) inspired me to think about this question again.

The conference "Mind, Body and Soul: An Update on Psychiatric, Philosophical and Legal Aspects of Care of Patients Nearing the End of Life" was hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine on 10th November. Pace talked about the issues emerging in caring for people with severe mental illness who are also terminal patients. He explained very clearly why people with schizophrenia have a higher mortality rate and die twenty years earlier than if they did not have schizophrenia.

The list of factors he mentioned made me think about one notion of success that is quite implicit in our evaluation of our own lives, and other people's lives. The first factor is unemployment. People who are diagnosed with schizophrenia are unlikely to have stable employment in the ten years following the diagnosis, and unemployment means reduced socialisation, loss of control over one's life, dependence on others, and often poverty.

The second factor that was discussed is lack of close relationships. Being socially integrated matters a lot to people with severe mental illness (they would like to have close relationships) and it predicts reduced risk of suicide. But most of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia (two thirds) lack social integration, and this causes serious disadvantage.

Thirdly, psychosis is the greatest predictor of premature death, not because of suicide, but because of physical illness, such as high incidence of smoking, diabetes, and metabolic syndromes, which are often made worse by antipsychotic drugs. One reason why physical health deteriorates is that people with psychosis access services late (because they feel they may not be taken seriously and have reduced pain sensitivity or pain expression), and often services are ill-equipped to deal with physical health and mental health as a package.

It seems to me that unemployment, lack of close relationships, and physical illness (and their consequences) are part of our pre-theoretical notion of failure. We see the successful agent as productive, socially integrated, able to determine her own path. What is potentially worrying about this identification is the implicit judgement that the agent is responsible for the consequences of her mental health issues. And this would be mistaken, because as Pace showed in his talk, the three factors he mentioned are due to or made much worse by stigma, that is, by the way society regards and treats people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The person with psychosis wants to work, make friends, and be well, but there are fewer opportunities for her to do so because she is marginalised.

The risks of marginalisation and of a "them and us" attitude to mental health are some of the issues I tackle in my latest Birmingham Brief.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Birmingham Heroes for Mental Health

Michael and I, together with post-doctoral researcher Ema Sullivan-Bissett, are taking part in a new campaign launched by the University of Birmingham on research that matters. Our project on the potential benefits of imperfect cognitions (PERFECT) is featured in the Birmingham Heroes website and posters. One of its aims is to challenge the stigma associated with mental illness.