Over the past few years we have seen increasing mentions of mental illness in the news agenda whether it be striving for equal treatment to physical illness, cuts in funding for mental health treatment or sadly, tragic case studies.

OnePoll surveyed 1000 UK adults to explore public perceptions of mental illness, and the stigmatisation and portrayal of people with mental health problems, within the media.

What do people think about those suffering with mental health?

Encouragingly, 87% of respondents were aware that mental illness can be attributed to biological factors.  Alarmingly however almost 3 in 10 believe that mental health problems are caused by a personality flaw, suggesting that sufferers of mental illness are somewhat at fault. Over 45% of people went as far as saying that they believe mental illness can be prevented.

The survey also found that one fifth (21%) believe that people with mental health problems are violent. In actual fact, research from time-to-change.org.uk shows people with a mental illness are far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than a perpetrator. In reality the majority of violent crimes are actually committed by people with no history of mental illness (source: mind.org.uk).

Moreover, a further 1 in 5 (19%) Brits believe that people with mental health problems cannot hold down a job. Whilst it’s true that some mental health disorders can be debilitating, the vast majority of people with mental health problems are actually just as productive and able.

Mental health and the media

So why do people have these misconceptions about mental health and those suffering with mental illness? Many of the more common misconceptions can perhaps be attributed to the portrayal of mental illnesses in film and TV.

Our survey found that portrayals of mental health sufferers in TV were described as

  • Mad or crazy (65%)
  • Tragic victims (47%)
  • Violent (45%)
  • Comic (20%)
  • Faking or attention seeking (16%)

Classic horror films such as ‘The Shining’ and ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ are particularly renowned for their inaccurate portrayals of mental illness, incorrectly depicting violence as a direct symptom of a mental health disorder.

This inaccurate, stylized portrayal of people experiencing mental health problems negatively enforces such misleading stereotypes such as those mentioned above.

Raising awareness

It is becoming increasingly important to raise awareness and dispel these misconceptions as research from time-to-change.org.uk found that 1 in 6 of us will have a significant mental health problem at some stage in our lifetime. That equates to 7 million people. With numbers this large, you could be forgiven for assuming that we would have a greater understanding of the issue, sadly this does not appear to be the case. In fact misconceptions over the symptoms, characteristics and coping abilities of people experiencing mental health problems contributes to a reluctance of many to speak freely and seek help or treatment.

Over one third (35%) of those surveyed by OnePoll stated that they know someone who has delayed seeking help for mental health issues, for fear of being judged or stigmatised. 1 in 10 young people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime (time-to-change.org.uk, 2015), but according to our poll nearly 50% of young people fear being judged. This is compared to 28% of people aged 55 and over.

Funding and treatment

Another reason for the reluctance to seek help could be access to treatment. With insufficient funding in recent years, many people with mental health problems have suffered without appropriate or accessible treatment. 42% of people surveyed who have personally experienced mental illness felt that adequate treatment was not available to them.

Arguments for equal funding:

More than 84% believe that mental illness should be given the same amount of funding as physical illness. Some of the reasons for this argument:

  • “An illness is an illness, no matter which category.”
  • Because it can be devastating. Quality of life can be poor. One cannot always function with depression.”
  • “..mental health is still a huge problem and will continue to be until more money is made available to help people – just because you cannot see it doesn’t mean it’s not there and a problem.”

Arguments against equal funding:

16% felt that mental illness should not receive the same funding as physical illness. Their reasons included:

  • “…because a lot of mental conditions are brought on by drug misuse or even marital breakdowns.”
  • “Physical illnesses can be life threatening and are more prevalent”
  • “I believe people should primarily take personal responsibility for their mental health, but support should be available.”

The Conservative party announced plans to increase funding for mental health care in their manifesto earlier this year, specifically for children, as well as reducing waiting time for treatment. It appears that the majority of us would agree that such promises are vital for those suffering with mental illness.

But it’s not just medical treatment that needs addressing. Half (50%) of people surveyed who have experienced a mental illness, reported being treated differently by others, with people often suggesting that they should ‘snap out of it’.  I suspect this wouldn’t be such a likely response to a physical illness. Other experiences included:

  • [Being treated]“As if I were mad or faking it”
  • “I am treated as if I am not ‘strong’ and as if my illness is due to some kind of failing on my part…..I don’t think that my friends and family would be treating me this way if I had a physical illness.”
  • “People were uncomfortable, it became a taboo topic, people did not understand it at all.”

This negative treatment of people experiencing mental health problems can also extend beyond the reaction of strangers, friends and family. Poor treatment of people with mental illness also lies within the UK justice system, with many people passing through the criminal justice system without their mental illness being recognised (source: together-uk.org, 2015).

Although a third (33%) of our respondents feel that people with mental illnesses are not treated fairly within the UK criminal justice system, over a third (35%) of people feel that the insanity defence otherwise known as diminished responsibility should be abolished. There is much debate surrounding the validity of this defence, as some feel that people could take advantage of the system. One respondent commented that “…a crime has still been committed and this plea is easily abused by those that aren’t genuine.”

Anti diminished responsibility:

A number of people believe that a mental illness does not obstruct a person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong:

  • “A crime has still been committed and this plea is easily abused by those that aren’t genuine”
  • “Whether they are insane or sane they still committed the crime and the outcome should be the same, to protect them and others from it happening again”
  • It gives perfectly sane criminals an ‘out'”
  • “Even thought they may suffer with mental health issues, individuals still need to be punished for their wrongdoings. Also if individuals were not punished, others would try and get away with their crimes.”

Pro diminished responsibility:

However, almost two thirds of people (65%) oppose this reasoning, and believe that people with mental illnesses should receive specialist treatment and rehabilitation to prevent them from reoffending.

  • “If it can genuinely be proved that the person is insane, then they did not know/understand what they were doing or the consequences. They shouldn’t therefore be sent to a normal prison, but sent to a secure place where they can get proper help.”
  • “Because sometimes the symptoms of mental illness leads to ‘irrational’ behaviour, and I do not think someone should be punished for a symptom of their illness.”

Although our survey shows glimmers of promise in the public’s understanding of what causes mental health problems, it unfortunately highlighted many more issues and work that still needs to be done. The media must act responsibly by removing negative portrayals of mental health sufferers in TV and film, and by accurately and sensitively reporting on related stories in the media. The Government must also follow up on their promises to increase funding for mental health.

Charities and campaigning

Fortunately though there are many charities and campaigners, such as Mind, Sane, Rethink Mental Illness, Young Minds and Time to Change, who work tirelessly to address the issues mentioned above, and help dispel widely held misconceptions. This will not only lead to better attitudes towards mental health but may also encourage sufferers to seek help. Mental Health Awareness week runs every year between the 11th and 17th May, and World Mental Health Day later this year on October 10th. For more information about mental health issues and to view a list of UK mental health charities, visit time-to-change.org. To help find local qualified counsellors or psychotherapists, visit counselling-directory.org.uk