People with complex mental ill-health likely to face stigma in relationships


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People with complex mental ill-health likely to experience stigma in relationships, study finds

October 29, 2020


Relationships have been identified as the life domain where people with complex mental ill-health have been most affected by stigma and discrimination, including with their life partners, family and friends. 

That’s according to the latest SANE Australia National Stigma Report Card, which found that more than half of the 70% participants who identified relationships had experienced ‘frequent’ or ‘very frequent’ stigma and discrimination in the last 12 months. This was followed by employment, healthcare services and social media.

Many of the participants also said they went on to hold expectations of similar future negative experiences and, as a result, were likely to withdraw from participation in relationships. 

“Relationships are the foundations of our everyday interactions so these findings paint a sobering picture of the realities faced by people with complex mental ill-health and their ability to speak up when they need support,” batyr CEO Nic Brown.

“While rejection and having mental ill-health ignored or dismissed are highlighted in the report, we know that discrimination and stigma doesn’t always need to be direct in order to discourage someone from speaking up.”

“Our everyday words and attitudes towards mental health can have a big impact in creating a supporting space that encourages open conversations.”

Positive experiences support the need for empathy, understanding and acceptance

Around 62% of participants in the survey said they had had positive experiences in connection with their complex mental ill-health in their relationships. 

When asked what they considered to be a positive relationship experience, more than half said that they should receive “special consideration” in relationships because of their mental ill-health while others “rejected this notion” and instead wrote of the need for equality, understanding and acceptance. 

Many participants also discussed finding refuge in relationships that were founded on empathy and understanding.

batyr’s thematic analysis shows the value in people with mental ill-health receiving unconditional love and unwavering support from at least one other person, an ‘anchor’ person. 

“It can be critical in not only someone taking their first steps in recovery, but also in the transition to recovery and sustaining wellbeing,” Nic said.

Wider, more accurate representation of complex mental ill-health in social media and media

Other insights from the survey point to concerns over the ongoing misrepresentation and selective representation of mental ill-health in media and on social media.

For example, one participant wrote: “At times media will present mental illness in a positive light for example news articles about new treatments – however, this positivity is always limited to media about mild to moderate anxiety and depression. I have never seen positive media about severe mental illness such as Borderline Personality Disorder.”

On average, 9 out of 10 participants who flagged mass media as a life domain where they had been most affected by stigma said they had seen, read or heard content that portrayed people living with complex mental ill-health as: 

  • Dangerous, unsafe or unpredictable
  • Being to blame for their issues
  • Incapable of recovery or getting better.

About the same number of participants flagged social media for the same reasons.

What other life domains were explored in the SANE report?

Between 25% and 70% of all 1,912 participants said their experiences of stigma and discrimination in the previous 12 months had affected them the most in terms of relationships (70% of participants), employment (43%), healthcare services (26%), and social media (25%). 

Other life domains, or areas of everyday life, explored were:

  • Mental healthcare services
  • Welfare and social services
  • Education and training
  • Financial and insurance services
  • Housing and homelessness services
  • Cultural, faith or spiritual practices and communities
  • Sports, community groups and volunteering
  • Public and recreational spaces
  • Legal and justice services.

Recommendations and where to from here?

According to SANE, actions that have been found to be effective in reducing stigma in other jurisdictions include: 

  • Initiatives that promote empathy through increasing social contact and exposure to people living with complex mental health issues.
  • Comprehensive campaigns that include concrete actions beyond awareness raising.
  • Calling out and rectifying systemic barriers that permit discrimination.

Specifically, SANE have recommended as key priorities the development of a comprehensive 10-year national program of work to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with complex mental health issues, with oversight from the National Mental Health Commission.

They also want to work to ensure people with a lived experience of complex mental health issues play a central role in training, service planning and ongoing oversight for health and social services. 

“At batyr, our programs are designed to actively break down stigma in all its forms, from perceived stigma to self-stigma, and demystify mental health as a whole,” Nic said.

“We know that certain types of complex mental ill-health are particularly misunderstood and we want to continue to amplify the voices of young people with these unique experiences, and remind everyone that there are ways we can support these young people in our lives.”

“batyr would like to thank and commend SANE Australia for their continuing efforts to shine a light on stigma against all forms of mental health, and looks forward to continuing to work together to smash the stigma around mental health together.”

Some background on the survey

The SANE survey was open to any adult living in Australia who had experienced complex mental ill-health in the previous 12 months (full list of types of complex mental ill-health found in report). 

The report doesn’t provide specific statistics or figures effectively comparing the stigma surrounding mild to moderate mental ill-health, like some moderate forms of depression and anxiety, versus things like schizophrenia spectrum disorders, disordered eating, personality disorders, and trauma-related or disassociate disorders.

However, it’s generally accepted that while progress is being made to reduce stigma –  including self-stigma –  with regards to mild to moderate mental ill-health, complex mental ill-health is lagging.

Want to learn more? Have a read of the full National Stigma Report Card, SANE’s recommendations or, if you’re strapped for time, check out the summary for more high level insights.

If you’re in need of mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.