Destigmatising mental illness?

Professional politics and public education in Britain, 1870–1970

Author: Vicky Long

Challenging the assumption that the stigma attached to mental illness stems from public ignorance and irresponsible media coverage, this book examines mental healthcare workers’ efforts to educate the public in Britain between 1870 and 1970. It covers a period which saw the polarisation of madness and sanity give way to a belief that mental health and illness formed a continuum, and in which segregative care within the asylum began to be displaced by the policy of community care. The book argues that the representations of mental illness conveyed by psychiatrists, nurses and social workers were by-products of professional aspirations, economic motivations and perceptions of the public, sensitive to shifting social and political currents. Sharing the stigma of their patients, many healthcare workers sought to enhance the prestige of psychiatry by emphasising its ability to cure acute and minor mental disorder. However, this strategy exacerbated the stigma attached to severe and enduring mental health problems. Indeed, healthcare workers occasionally fuelled the stereotype of the violent, chronically-ill male patient in an attempt to protect their own interests. Drawing on service users’ observations, the book contends that current campaigns, which conflate diverse experiences under the label mental illness, risk trivialising the difficulties facing people who live with severe and enduring mental disturbance, and fail to address the political, economic and social factors which fuel discrimination.

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‘The strength of the book is the presentation of the plurality of discourses generated by different groups, both from within and outside the field of mental healthcare. It provides some unique perspectives that, if embraced by mental health professionals and campaigners today, could significantly improve the chance of destigmatizing the image of individuals with severe and long-term mental ill health.'
Verusca Calabria, Nottingham Trent University
H-Disability
May 2017

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