Why do we need to address the stigma around mental health?

Why do we need to address the stigma around mental health?

A blog in advance of the HeadStart Wolverhampton Conference on 3rd October 2017


In support of their charity, Heads Together, Prince Henry of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cambridge wrote: “We have seen time and time again that unresolved mental health problems lie at the heart of some of our greatest social challenges. Too often, people feel afraid to admit that they are struggling with their mental health. This fear of prejudice and judgement stops people from getting help and can destroy families and end lives.”

During the time I was writing the HeadStart Wolverhampton Phase 3 bid to Big Lottery during 2015 and 2016, I was able to rely on the international evidence base which highlighted the additional distress caused by stigmatising attitudes towards people experiencing mental illness. For example, in 2012, Time to Change reported that 9 out of 10 young people who have mental health problems in the West Midlands are affected by stigma and have experienced negative treatment as a result of their mental illness. This included from friends (66%), parents (54%) and, most worryingly, teachers and lecturers (49%).

I was also able to use the contribution of young people and young adults locally who had experienced mental health challenges and were willing to share the impact on their lives from the negative beliefs of others. This seemed to apply across the range of mental distress including mood disorders, anxiety disorders and eating disorders.

The HeadStart Wolverhampton Autumn Conference is driven by the anti-stigma ambitions of the programme, wrapped around a range of thought-provoking keynotes and workshops to identify, debate and inspire the transformation required to make the societal and service changes our young people deserve. The anti-stigma ambitions in our programme include:

Campaigns and competitions

Running city-wide and regional events in schools and communities and linking in with national days such as anti-bullying and mental health awareness days, including partnerships with national organisations such as Time To Change.


Collating and presenting appropriate information to young people, parents and families, and professionals through digital means to raise awareness and better inform.


Workforce development for professionals to challenge stigma, promote better understanding and equip them with the skills and knowledge to teach others Increasing awareness, understanding and tolerance of mental health (and its manifestations) amongst young people and their parents and teaching them that stigma is bad.

As a teacher, you would expect me to be particularly keen to see how we can use education to change attitudes. Over the years I have been involved in a number of programmes where young people have been encouraged to learn about discrimination and disadvantage and challenge stereotypical attitudes in others. In my experience, young people have open minds and can be brilliant ambassadors when they are passionate about fixing unfairness.

There is certainly anecdotal evidence that young people are more willing to discuss mental and emotional health, both their own, and how others might be affected. Our HeadStart resilience and mental wellbeing programmes in schools, mostly delivered through a vehicle known as SUMO (Stop Understand Move On), certainly stimulates conversations between young people and young people and teachers and adults, and equips them with additional understanding of their own mental and emotional health and equips them with valuable coping skills and strategies.

Put very simply, addressing the negativity that people think about other people with mental health challenges should also mean over time that the people with the mental health challenges stop believing that others are thinking negative thoughts about them. That should then mean more people seek support and advice when the challenges come along. As Her Royal Highnesses are seeking from their charity: “people who feel comfortable with their everyday mental wellbeing, feel able to support their friends and families through difficult times, and stigma no longer prevents people getting help they need.”

Bullying, Mental Health and Suicide

One in three children worldwide are victims of bullying. 

Recently I’ve been reading the research carried out by Professor Dieter Wolke from the University of Warwick which shows that children who have been bullied by peers suffer worse in the longer term than those who have been maltreated by adults. Even as someone who has worked with young people for many years and seen and dealt with all sorts of bullying, I’ve also been alarmed by reading the latest research from www.bullyingstatistics.org and others about the connection between bullying, the mental health of young people, and suicide. 

It is frightening. 

At least half of child suicides in the UK can be connected to bullying. We already know that for every suicide there are at least 100 children who attempt to take their own lives and thousands more who are self-harming, so the true scale of this is very frightening indeed. The American Yale University report that bully victims are up to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims of bullying.

Bullying is unwanted harassment, often aggressive, usually repeated behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Specific actions can include making threats, spreading rumours, physical, verbal or online attacks, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Online bullying has replaced the more traditional face to face methods and for the ‘always on’ generation that means round the clock bullying and no respite. At last if you were being bullied when I was at school, you could go home and have some peace. Not any more it seems. 

We have to take this problem more seriously. It is killing kids. 

The research shows how much this kind of ongoing abuse during childhood can be hugely damaging to a child’s mental development. The consequences will include low levels of confidence and self-esteem, body image issues, becoming withdrawn and low aspiration. In more serious cases, bullied children will suffer anxiety, panic attacks, depression and other symptoms which could lead to psychiatric disorders. We already know that over half of young people aged 14 with a clinically diagnosable mental health problem will have them for life. Over 75% if we extend the age range to 18. Negative and dangerous coping strategies will include self-harming, drug and alcohol abuse.

Even the bullies are impacted. They also seem to find it harder to cope and have increased risk of mental health issues including depression. They also have poor outcomes and many end up in the criminal justice system. 

We have to take this problem more seriously. It is killing kids. 

Speaking as a teacher and as a parent, one of the things that worries me about bullying is that some adults, including parents and teachers, see bullying as a part of growing up. A rite of passage almost. Young people report being told to ignore it or to make some new friends. That might work in low level cases but it is hardly surprising that the research says that up to 90% of victims of ongoing bullying don’t tell their parents about being bullied. 50% said they felt they needed to deal with the bullying on their own. Why do they think that? We have to change this. No young person should suffer this alone and without someone helping them to stop it. We must remove the stigma attached to bullying. Young people must feel that they can talk to their parents/carers and their teachers, and in turn that early intervention opportunities will be taken before the bullying sets in and causes long term mental health problems.

Some adults, including parents and teachers, see bullying as a part of growing up. A rite of passage almost.

Unchecked, as discussed earlier, bullying can lead to mental health problems and they can lead to suicidal thoughts. Some of the warning signs include depression, ongoing sadness, withdrawal, losing interest, trouble sleeping, eating disorders, talking about death or dying, harmful activities such as alcohol or substance abuse or self-harming, and expressing difficulties coping or that things would be better without them. Of course, in some cases there will be little in the way of warning signs. After all, if a young person is not talking to anyone about being bullied then they might also be hiding their suicidal feelings. 

We have to educate the adults and the kids that they have to talk about this, and the adults have to take it seriously. 

This will save lives. 

Dreaming Big

HeadStart Wolverhampton’s mission statement is:

To promote, protect and preserve the mental wellbeing of 10-16 year olds across our city, by inspiring them to dream big, supporting them to maintain motivation and control, and equipping them with the skills to cope with setbacks and adversity. 

So, how important is dreaming big?

In preparing our HeadStart Phase 3 bid for Big Lottery, our consultation and needs analysis told us that many young people growing up in Wolverhampton have low aspirations and little sense of control in their lives. For those facing additional challenges such as being a member of a family with a low income, poverty, a history of mental health issues, or being a young carer, or witnessing domestic violence, it was even harder to imagine a positive future. 

For those young people with goals, they told us it can be hard to stay motivated, especially when faced with challenges, and when things go wrong it can feel like no-one notices; or that there is nowhere to go unless their ‘problem’ is bad enough to warrant help or they are considered disruptive or naughty. 

The truth of the matter is that too many of us give up on our dreams.

When the going gets tough we get going, giving up rather than working through the pain of another failure.

Dreams are a starting point. As George Lucas said, “Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you imagine it”. Walt Disney also said “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”. Elvis Presley said ambition was needed to make dreams a reality when he said “ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”. 

You can’t do it unless you imagine it”
— George Lucas

We want our young people to dream big, to believe they can aspire to greater things and have positive futures. Not all of them can play for Manchester United or be a pop star. But they might learn such great lessons from trying and pursuing their dreams that they have success in other areas they wouldn’t have thought of. 

High achievers actually tend to focus at the middle distance of their dream. A target that is out of reach and challenging, but possible with effort. Then they refocus on the next step and accept that the course they planned might change. Many dreams have grown with each step, with each bunch of learning and experience.

Make a dent in the universe
— Steve Jobs

In the famous Steve Jobs commencement address to Stanford University he told the graduates to go and pursue their dreams and trust that at some stage in the future they would be able to connect the dots as he had in his life. His steps came together to realise his dream of changing the world through computers, or as he put by “making a dent in the universe”. 

Dreaming big provides a platform for growth and success.

It all starts with the dream.