Invisible illnesses & how communications help
Chris Flowers of FT Health writes, “in the field of mental health all countries are developing countries.”
Mental health’s recognition as a condition that requires legitimate medical attention from qualified physicians is in its infancy. Just mere decades ago, serious, complex illnesses such as clinical depression, schizophrenia, mood disorders and dementia were marginalised in the world of healthcare. Even in the developed world, those suffering with these very real, debilitating illnesses were all too likely to be labelled as “insane”, and locked away in facilities that weren’t properly equipped to address their illnesses. While there, patients risked lobotomisation and other medieval, primitive solutions as the staff charged with caring for patients struggled to humanise and treat those affected. In many developing countries, the fate of those afflicted could be even worse.
Issues related to treatment of mental health conditions were (and unfortunately still are according to The Lancet) disproportionately suffered by those living in poverty. The lack of education and concerted effort from governments of developing countries to find innovative solutions to mental health challenges – and to treat those suffering with the care they require – is exacerbated by the lack of education around mental health, which has been prevalent for a millenia.
Communication is a key ingredient in mental health recovery.
While diagnosing and treating mental health illnesses is a complex, multi-faceted cause for global concern, what role do communications have to play in helping reduce confusion and misinformation, which is especially prevalent in the developing world?
Reducing stigma of mental health conditions
Deep-seeded historical prejudice and mendacity has left those with mental health conditions isolated and the lack of understanding from the general population has accentuated the stigmatisation. Communicating the widespread, relatable nature of mental illness is important to combating a stigma which is challenging for those suffering to overcome – compounding the effects of their condition.
Today, there’s no shortage of communications tackling issues related to stigmatisation of people with mental health problems and several recent adverts convey the message in a powerful way. The 2018 #GetTheInsideOut campaign is a great example which saw Lloyds Bank partner with Mental Health UK to break the taboos. Companies, the NHS (and communication agencies) can improve the strength of their communications around mental health issues through knowledge sharing with charitable organisations or patient advocacy groups. Fostering these lines of communication will certainly improve the authenticity of the messaging and help lead to the empathetic response lacking in our society.
Incorporating the patient voice into communications can be a very positive thing.
Explaining mental health conditions
Mental illness widely is not understood as a medical condition, one that cannot be remedied or improved without medical intervention. Using communications to educate a mass audience about the very real nature of mental illnesses could help allow for better understanding for people of all walks of life. By way of example, Scotland’s See Me campaign aims to counteract the negative perception of those with mental illnesses. Early results from the campaign showed an 11% reduction in the belief that the public should be better protected from people with mental health issues and a 17% drop in the perception that mentally ill people are dangerous.
Improving education and awareness via communications like the above mentioned campaign could also lead to an increased ability for people to self diagnosis and encourage others (friends, family, colleagues) to seek treatment. According to the Centre for Disease Control, Only about 20% of adults with a diagnosable mental disorder saw a mental health care provider in the past year, a staggeringly low number when we consider the potential ramifications of not treating mental health as required.
Being equipped to recognise initial, clear signs of potential mental health issues is critical to ensuring those suffering receive proper treatment in a timely fashion. For those suffering from depression, this could be especially critical for obvious reasons.
Communications cannot, in a vacuum, make a discernible impact on normalised prejudice and long perpetuated myths. They can however, help steer conversation and improve dialogue, around the world, towards understanding, empathy and the need for comprehensive education for those suffering from mental illnesses.