Reducing stigma around mental health

Written by: Michelle Stebbings, Head of Outreach and Engagement, Gambling with Lives

Published: 16/06/2021

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Michelle from Gambling with Lives, shares her thoughts on the ALLIANCE Annual Conference session Reducing stigma, emphasising humanity.

At the ALLIANCE Annual Conference last week we heard from a number of guest speakers on the topic of stigma in relation to mental health. Importantly, the focus was on what could be done to reduce this stigma and help people access the help and support they need.

As a professional who has worked in outreach and engagement for a number of national charities over a number of years, I have considered stigma in this way before; how can we bring down the very real barriers that prevent people from reaching out?

At Gambling with Lives we support families who’ve been bereaved by gambling-related suicide. Research has found that 4 to 11 percent of suicides are related to gambling, the equivalent of up to 650 deaths a year in the UK. Our aim is to raise awareness amongst gamblers, their families and friends, and health professionals of the dangerous effects of gambling on mental health and the high suicide risk.

From a suicide prevention point of view, the message is clear: as a society we must learn to talk about mental health, ask about suicide, encourage normalisation and think about how we talk about suicide. But that’s only a tiny part of the problem. We heard from Tommy Kelly and Martin Paterson who have both lived through mental health crises. In both cases there was a void where appropriate and timely intervention should have been. A desire to help but a lack of genuine empathy and appropriate skills prevented Martin and Tommy from getting the right help at the right time.

What was asked of us to consider was why suicide rates are not reducing and people living with mental health conditions are dying younger despite all the efforts of the last 20 years. Perhaps because a piece of the puzzle is still missing? Quite possibly. Reducing stigma, it was said, must therefore go further than addressing cultural attitudes and include a public health approach – a more representative workforce, health leadership that is committed to inclusion, and policy change.

Martin who is now in recovery from a lengthy gambling addiction spoke of his shame and guilt, which challenged us to think about self-stigma. To reduce this, at Gambling with Lives we challenge the “responsible gambling” narrative popular with the gambling industry that puts all the emphasis on the individual. We help people to realise they have also been the victim of dangerous gambling products, predatory practices from gambling firms as well as relentless advertising.

Poignantly, Tommy told us that while stigma exists, mental health does not discriminate and so we all have a vested interest in normalising mental health and creating safety for those in need of help and support.

It is possible to recover. We see this in Tommy and Martin, and we are not without ideas. My three take-aways are:

  • Cultural and attitudinal change is needed
  • Development of a more empathic response among treatment providers that values the inclusion of lived experience is vital
  • Ideas work better when added together than they do in isolation

Gambling with Lives was set up by the families and friends of young people who had taken their own lives as a direct result of gambling. The charity’s research indicates there are between 250 and 650 gambling related suicides every year in the UK: a minimum of one every working day. You can find out more on Gambling with Lives’ website (this link will take you away from our website).

Gambling with Lives offers a range of specialist support services for families bereaved by gambling related suicide. If your family has been affected please make contact at info@gamblingwithlives.org (this link will take you away from our website).

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