We received the sad news this week that the anti-stigma campaign, Time to Change, is to close its doors next March. The Government has decided not to extend its funding.
The team at TTC have done some incredible work and made a huge impact on mental health stigma, but I do believe that, while they leave a strong legacy, there is still more to do and I am devastated that they do not have the funding to continue.
While some may argue that we need more mental health services, rather than campaigns (and yes, I do agree we need more services – 100%) I feel that campaigns such as TTC have an incredibly important role to play in highlighting the need for such services. They remind us of the lack of parity between physical and mental health services, and they encourage more awareness and understanding of the impact of mental health problems on society – therefore making service funding decisions more popular with voters (as cynical as this may sound). This, of course, is all in addition to tackling the shame, self stigma and isolation experienced by many due to stigma – key factors that inhibit recovery.
Regardless, it’s difficult to argue for one charity or service over another, as we all have different needs and experiences that inform how we’d like to see funding spent. And, as Chair of an addiction recovery charity, I am especially keen to see more work in drug and alcohol services – but that’s not going to happen. Why? Because it’s too big a problem and currently not all that popular. In fact, in terms of alcohol alone, it is estimated that there are over half a million dependent drinkers in the UK and only 18% of these are accessing treatment.
The reason I believe that addiction is an unpopular topic is because there is a lot of stigma surrounding it – with many seeing it as a lifestyle choice. Research conducted by NGI Solutions with our charity, The Road to Recovery Trust just last year showed that 1 in 3 people ‘believe addicts brought it on themselves.’ This is staggering – nobody chooses to be addicted. So therefore (and again, this may seem cynical), government is less likely to campaign for it due to its lack of popularity – as well as the HUGE scale of the crisis. A crisis that is killing people every day.
But this is where we could have seen more work taking place through TTC. If the campaign could have evolved to look at other kinds of mental health problems such as addiction – I don’t think anyone could argue with the fact that such work is needed. However, many don’t consider it on a par with other mental health problems because it isn’t covered in the same way under the Mental Health Act. So I would argue that there is a much bigger piece of work that needs to take place that looks at how mental health problems and associated symptoms or behaviours (such as self-harm, food problems and addiction) are treated under the Act. Perhaps it’s about treating people more as individuals than diagnoses? If somebody continually presents to crisis services under the influence, and is later discharged when sober with no ongoing aftercare, things are only going to get worse.
Another topic that TTC would be well placed to support is looking at some of the seemingly most despised groups in society – such as mothers who have had their children removed due to mental health / addiction problems. And people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system due to the legal status or impact of their coping mechanisms (e.g. drugs and alcohol to deal with mental health problems). Challenging this kind of stigma could change lives, inform funding decisions and reduce shame thereby encouraging recovery. Oh, and it will undoubtedly reduce crime – just look at this report from St Andrew’s Healthcare.
Stigma is a huge problem. And just because we’ve succeeded in getting more people to understand the impact and experiences of some mental health problems, it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s ‘job done’.
But perhaps these new campaign ideas I’m talking about are simply not popular with government – the key funders for the TTC campaign. Perhaps they could never be on the table for future funding and development of TTC. But it’s a catch 22 isn’t it? The problem of addiction grows bigger while the stigma shrouds people in shame, and yet the stigma influences the lack of funding of appropriate treatment services. We need MPs to stand up and confront this popularity issue – and equip those who are able to effectively campaign to do so. It can only save lives.
I just can’t see anyone in our current government being brave or selfless enough to stand up and fight for some of our most vulnerable and stigmatised people.