Pioneers who can challenge taboo

The best campaigners against discrimination in mental health are
those who have had problems themselves. Service users’ voices bring
the issues alive, and add a real, fresh perspective that helps in
the fight against the dominant medical model. Unless service users’
voices are heard, politically motivated theories and damaging
stereotypes will continue to dominate the public mind and the
psychiatric system.

The government’s social exclusion unit is proposing to train people
with mental health problems to act as spokespersons. The hope is
that through media coverage they will be able to convince groups,
including employers, to rethink their views.

“Why me?” was the question going through my head as I confronted
the full-page photograph of myself in the Yorkshire Evening Post
along with an article I wrote on mental health. I had started work
as a media officer for positive mental health in Leeds in a post
supported jointly by health and social services. The idea was to
promote more varied coverage in the media and to challenge the
negative and stigmatising coverage that mental health usually
receives. I was recruited partly because of my public relations
skills and partly because of my experience of severe depression.

I wanted to highlight the taboo of mental health and the scandal
that 85 per cent of those with mental health problems are
unemployed. I wanted to target employers to appeal for more
openness in the workplace. It occurred to me that if I couldn’t
write the piece, I couldn’t do the job. How could I expect others
to be open with the media if I couldn’t be?

Before going public, media training is essential, preferably by
trainers who have used mental health services. People need to know
their personal boundaries and learn how to convey the key messages.
Once a media interview has been secured, support needs to be built
in before, during and afterwards.

There need to be more of us “out there” – not just celebrities – so
that others can follow our example. Our achievements need to be
highlighted. Perhaps then the stereotypical violence and
helplessness associated with mental health problems can be finally
dealt with.

Pauline Bispham is the media officer for promoting positive
mental health at Leeds North West Primary Care Trust.

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