Guest blogger Lol Butterfield, a mental health campaigner and qualified mental health nurse, explains his involvement with a national drive to tackle the stigma suffered by people with mental health issues. The campaign is driven by service users. Butterfield, who lives in Teeside, has written an autobiographical book which describes his experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent.“He must have been insane to have done that!” Sadly, an all too familiar response following reading about a particularly vicious assault or murder, in the newspapers. The reality is usually different though and, statistically, 95% of serious crime is carried out by people who do not have a clinical diagnosis of mental illness, those who are not therefore “insane.” They are “bad not mad”. So why do we discriminate?
People experiencing mental illness are more likely to be the victim, rather than the perpetrator, of a serious crime. This criminalisation, mainly through the media, was one of the reasons I became involved in Time to Change and its Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP).
LEAP is an advisory group of 12 people who shape the Time To Change programme, England’s largest mental health anti-stigma campaign. Time to Change began in 2007 funded through the Big Lottery and Comic Relief with £20 million of investment. Us “Leapsters” have extensive experience and knowledge of mental illness and a passion to put the record straight. We act as campaign ambassadors and spokespeople. With a diverse mix of expertise and good links to service user and carer networks, we work towards ensuring that service user and carers needs are at the heart of the campaign.
Over 30 years I’ve spent time working in mental health services as a qualified nurse. I have seen daily the stigma and discrimination faced by those who experience mental ill health and their families.
I’ve also been on the receiving end of this stigma myself. I experienced mental illness myself when in 2004 I had to take time off work with severe depression. I have worn the shoes of the nurse, and the patient. I can empathise with the one in four of the population who have also found themselves mentally unwell at some point in their lives.
My father also experienced mental illness and as a small child I recall the stigma surrounding this growing up in a small mining village in the north east. As a young boy I did not understand what the word stigma meant but I certainly knew how it felt at that time.
I have spoken to people who have been laughed at on the bus or been called names because people know they have mental health conditions. I know of those who have ever been told to sit in other areas of a pub, who have not applied for jobs because they fear being rejected when they disclose their mental health background. These people are vulnerable to abuse because their mannerisms. Ironically these mannerisms are often caused by their medication rather than the condition itself.
I became involved with LEAP because I saw an opportunity to positively and constructively use my experience, as both a nurse and someone with experience of mental ill-health, to make a difference.
I have presented at conferences telling my story and promoting the campaign message. I’ve taken part in TV and radio interviews, visited schools and colleges to raise awareness. Until recently, I was writing a bimonthly column for the local newspaper where I live in Teesside with the aim of tackling the negative stereotypical coverage we see all too often.
Three years ago, I decided to write Sticks and Stones, my autobiography, as another way of spreading the anti-stigma message. my childhood memories of growing up with a father who experienced mental illness and the stigma my family faced and I myself felt as a child. For me writing the book was also about encouraging others to follow my lead by using myself as a positive role model (ie someone who is trained as a mental health nurse and has experienced mental illness. I am very open about this in order to promote more acceptance from others)
Individually as well as collectively we can and will make a difference no matter how small. With imagination and creativity we can impact in those areas of society that discriminate and stigmatise.
It has not always been easy. The work I do can be stressful because often it is real people with real experiences at the core of what we do as a group, and I do as an individual. I have at times to be mindful of my own limitations and avoid pushing myself into the “dark place” of clinical depression again. That said my work gives me so much satisfaction and pleasure. To know my words and actions have made others think differently around mental health, and act differently in their treatment of those who are unwell, is reward in itself.
The work of LEAP has made a difference in that dedicated time and effort has ensured that the message is being delivered in many creative, diverse ways that otherwise may not have been. As Leapsters we cover all parts of England to touch as many people in as many regions as possible. Touching hearts and minds, promoting tolerance and understanding of mental ill-health. I believe we are teaching the next generation to act and behave differently, changing attitudes for the better.