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The stigma of mental health

It’s an unfortunate fact, but mental health and stigma go hand in hand.

Unkind comments. Uninformed opinions. Prejudice. Judgement. Ignorance. Discrimination. It’s rife. It’s wrong.

Those at the sharp end bear the brunt, make no mistake, the anxious, the depressed and the unwell.

But the stigma doesn’t start or end there.

You see, doctors (and other mental health professionals) experience it too.

Stigmatised for choosing a career in psychiatry?

It might sound farcical, but this too is sometimes an unfortunate fact.

It’s one highlighted in a recent communication from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

‘Medical students and trainee doctors report that the badmouthing of certain medical disciplines is impacting on their freedom to choose psychiatry as a speciality,’ it read.

‘The stigma surrounding psychiatry doesn’t begin and end with the experience of patients. Doctors too experience stigmatisation – for deciding to become psychiatrists.’

The Royal College call the practice ‘bashing’ and, whilst proponents might see it as a humorous custom, behind the laughs there is a serious message.

That mental illness (and all its associated issues) is causing problems like never before.

That in the UK there are not enough psychiatrists to meet a growing need.

That ‘bashing’ and badmouthing influences career choices.

That in the long term, the anxious, the vulnerable and the unwell will bear the brunt.

‘There’s no psychiatrist in the land who cannot remember the reactions they received from some colleagues – especially the senior ones – when they announced that they wanted to pursue a career in psychiatry,’ said Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Royal College President, who launched a campaign at last month’s National Student Psychiatry Conference in an attempt to address the issue. ‘A bit of humour is all very well but behind this is something unacceptable – an implication that the best and brightest doctors are wasting their time in psychiatry. This has to stop and this campaign is going to do that. People with mental disorders – just like those with physical disorders – deserve the best minds to find new treatments and provide the best care.’

Recruiting psychiatrists is a global problem and it’s quite clear that, in the UK, the number of students interested in specialising in this field (the latest figures suggest between four and five per cent) is considered insufficient to meet future needs.

Recent research (based upon an online questionnaire, completed by 960 medical students) found that, when it comes to medical specialities, psychiatry and general practice attract the greatest number of negative comments . . .

That, whilst 80.5% consider ‘bashing’ to be unprofessional, 71.5% believe it to be an ever-present part of practising medicine.

That 74% agree that there is an unspoken hierarchy when it comes to specialities.

That 27% of students said that they’d changed their career choice as a direct result of negative comments made about them.

It is this final figure that is perhaps the most pertinent, this one that highlights that, behind the humour, there is a serious message and one that underlines that, should ‘bashing’ be allowed to continue unchecked, it’s the anxious, the vulnerable and the unwell – those least equipped to cope – who stand to bear the brunt.

It’s an unfortunate fact, but mental health and stigma go hand in hand.

Be it doctors or be it patients, it cannot continue.

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