Stigmatising mental illness: are you mad?

Saturday 17 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Cinema 3, Barbican Therapeutic Times

From the suicide of Robin Williams to the deliberate crashing of Germanwings flight 9525 by its mentally ill co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, the stigma surrounding mental illness has never been talked about, or questioned, more. Last year, Fox News commentators in the USA were forced to apologise after labelling Williams a ‘coward’ for taking his own life, and the Sun newspaper in the UK came in for heavy criticism after a front-page headline referred to Lubitz as a ‘madman’. Controversial commentator Katie Hopkins’ tweet suggesting that people with depression needed fresh air and running shoes rather than pills created a storm of outrage. Asda and Tesco have been forced to drop ‘mental patient’ fancy dress costumes from their shelves.

Anti-stigma campaigners such as Time to Change argue that those with mental illness face discrimination and intolerance from the general public. Celebrities from Alistair Campbell to Kerry Katona have spoken publicly about their own experiences of mental illness in an effort to reduce stigma and encourage others to seek help. Another tactic used to reduce stigma is to highlight the prevalence of mental illness, with the claim that one in four of us suffer from mental-health problems in any given year. In fact, there was criticism of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) in 2013, when many psychiatrists claimed it pathologised what once would have been seen as eccentricity, as well as redefining normal emotional reactions, such as mourning the death of a loved one, as psychiatric disorders. 

Many argue such normalisation unhelpfully encourages people to understand their distress and unease through the prism of psychiatric diagnosis. Others have criticised anti-stigma campaigning – like objections to the word ‘mad’ - as censorious ‘language policing’, cutting off public discourse and debate. Is there a danger that in reducing stigma we absolve ourselves of the need to make moral judgments about what it is to lead a good life? Why does the idea of fighting stigma have such public resonance today, and is it possible or even desirable to be remove stigma entirely from society?

Listen to the debate

Paul Farmer
chief executive, Mind

Dr Lucy Johnstone
consultant clinical psychologist, Cwm Taf Health Board, South Wales; author, A Straight Talking Guide to Psychiatric Diagnosis

Dr Ken McLaughlin
lecturer in social work; author, Surviving Identity: vulnerability and the psychology of recognition

Dr Keon West
social psychologist & lecturer, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dr Liz Frayn
consultant psychiatrist, Devon Partnership Trust

Produced by
Dr Liz Frayn consultant psychiatrist, Devon Partnership Trust
Recommended readings
We need more friends and fewer shrinks

The medicalisation of social problems is straining mental-health services

Ken McLaughlin, spiked, 3 September 2015

Time to Shout About Mental Health

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Alastair Campbell, Huffington Post, 20 April 2015

Did 2014 mark the beginning of the end for mental health stigma?

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Dean Burnett, Guardian, 19 December 2014

Mental health stigma hasn't gone away

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Pete Etchells, Guardian, 28 August 2014

Robin Williams, depression and the complex causes of suicide

While many people who kill themselves have been experiencing the extreme distress we might think of as depression, that’s not always the case and is rarely the whole explanation

Anne Cooke, Angela Gilchrist and John McGowan, Guardian, 18 August 2014

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