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Stigma causing people with mental illnesses to hold back in life, study suggests

The study explored the experiences of people who live with long-term, enduring mental illnesses and who have faced stigma over the last year (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The study explored the experiences of people who live with long-term, enduring mental illnesses and who have faced stigma over the last year (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Scots living with severe, enduring and complex mental illnesses are withdrawing from relationships, friendships, work and healthcare due to stigma and discrimination, new research has shown.

The Scottish Mental Illness Stigma Study – the first of its kind carried out in Scotland – invited adults living with long-term mental illnesses to share ways in which they have experienced stigma over the last year.

The study was commissioned by See Me – the national programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination – and was managed by the Mental Health Foundation in partnership with VOX Scotland, The Lines Between and Glasgow Caledonian University.

A survey was conducted from November 26 2021 and March 7 2022 and received 346 eligible responses.

Interviews and focus groups also explored experiences in more depth, with around 70 people engaging in these sessions.

A report released on Tuesday shows that nine in 10 of those who took part had encountered stigma in relationships, while nearly eight in 10 said they had experienced it while accessing healthcare services.

A further 71% of respondents said they had faced discrimination in employment.

Participants were asked to identify three areas in life where they found stigma had the greatest impact.

Of those who identified mental healthcare services, more than half (58%) said they have avoided calling an ambulance or attending A&E departments when in need of emergency help due to previous negative experiences.

A further 80% said they had stopped themselves from seeking help from mental health services.

For those who chose relationships, four in 10 (45%) said they had prevented themselves from starting a family or having children due to the stigma around mental health.

In employment, 85% of respondents revealed they had avoided applying for jobs.

Zoe Mason, 24, from Dunfermline, said she found attitudes towards her changed when she was diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) following a 15-month hospital stay.

Ms Mason said: “I noticed a general lack of compassion. I felt like, whenever I did anything, or said anything, it was put down to the fact that I had EUPD.

“I felt like I was no longer seen as a person – I was seen as a list of symptoms and a diagnosis.

“It all made me feel very alone, very hopeless. I felt like I couldn’t get appropriate care in that situation.”

Thirty-five-year-old Gabby Quinn, from Glasgow, has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, psychosis and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, which she says has resulted in stigma and discrimination from family and friends and in settings such as employment and healthcare.

Ms Quinn said: “I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), so if I wander into A&E and my shoulder’s out of place, that’s not a problem at all.

“If I go in because I’m hallucinating, they don’t know how to handle it and they don’t know how severe it is.”

She suggested there is “a gap in education and understanding” when it comes to mental illness.

She added: “Any time I show up to minor injuries, there’s a flag in my file to note that I have complex mental health. I always know when someone has seen it because some of them seem afraid of me, which is quite sad.”

See Me director Wendy Halliday said: “The number of people withdrawing from opportunities which many of us take for granted – like starting a family, making friends and going to work demonstrates how unjust life is and how much needs to change.

“In society we need to reduce social inequality and stop people from being excluded from employment, education, and relationships.”