For one night only, Cambridge’s debating society abandoned its 200-year-old rules on 21 January 2016. Instead of a classical debate featuring speakers in proposition and opposition of a motion, the Cambridge Union Society hosted a conversation about mental health. The speakers shared their experiences with mental illness and the associated stigma.
First up was Dr Ahmed Hankir, who is a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Manchester University. He pointed out that the word “stigma” comes from the Greek word for “tattoo” which refers to an old practice of marking criminals who were “unclean and unwanted”. Dr Hankir went on to explain that mental health stigma is a serious issue: for some people, the stigma is worse than their mental illness itself. He said: “There are posters with people who fight together against cancer. I want to see this for mental health stigma now”.
The second speaker of the evening was Patricia Goddard, a television presenter known for her talk show “Trisha”. As a mental health activist, Mrs Goddard wants to start a dialogue about mental illness and make people realise that “there is no us and them”. She told the audience about a recent encounter with a taxi driver, who said: “I never had one of these mad people in the back of my car!”, to which she replied: “Well, you better stop and let me out then!”. Mrs Goddard previously suffered from depression. She urged the audience to take a “Mental Health First Aid” course, which teaches participants to recognise first signs of mental health problems and how to help.
The former professional footballer Clarke Carlisle was next. He spoke about his own battle against depression and his suicide attempt in 2014. He said that he had been suffering from depression for 10 years without knowing it. With his own children, he tries to speak openly about mental health problems: “We need to educate the next generation”.
The fourth speaker was Fiona Phillips, who used to present the breakfast show GMTV and is now writing for the Daily Mirror. Both her parents died from Alzheimer’s disease and she wants to raise awareness for the illness. She told the audience how her mother’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease was misdiagnosed as depression, leading to ineffective treatments and suffering. Mrs Phillips also spoke about her son, who suffers from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She mentioned the stigma that he has to experience and said: “If my son had a broken arm, he would be treated with sympathy”.
Next up was Amber Cowburn, a recent graduate of Cambridge University. She is also trustee of the Invictus Trust, a charity that supports young people with mental health problems. The charity was set up in the memory of Ms Cowburn’s brother, who committed suicide when he was 18 after suffering from severe depression for 3 months. When arriving in Cambridge, she said she was “horrified to discover that people don’t look after their mental health”. Ms Cowburn described the intense pressure of the 8-week terms and “encouraged burn-outs” as a breeding ground for mental illness. She said she was “not proud of how this university deals with mental health issues”, with waiting lists of 8 weeks. She served as president of Student Minds Cambridge, a mental health charity campaigning for positive mental health among students.
This talk was followed by Dr Rashid Zaman, a consultant psychiatrist and associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He pointed out that not only mental illness is associated with stigma, but also the profession of psychiatry itself. According to Dr Zaman, only 3% of UK medical students specialise in psychiatry. As a tutor for medical students at Cambridge University, he tries to encourage them to consider a career in psychiatry. Dr Zaman pointed out that students often “get put off” a specialisation in psychiatry by negative notions of the profession. In his opinion, they need “positive role models” and “encouragement at the start of their studies”.
The next speaker was Sarah Hughes, who is the CEO of the charity Mind in Cambridgeshire. She spoke of her early experiences of working in a psychiatric hospital, where she witnessed ineffective treatments and suffering patients. Mrs Hughes thinks that “mental health has come so far” since then, but that suicide prevention is still a pressing issue. She pointed out that “suicide kills more people than road traffic accidents in the UK” and that “we need to be brave” to talk about it. She feels that everybody can save a life by being compassionate and available, “you do not need to be a psychiatrist”.
Dr David Crepaz-Keay was the last speaker of the evening. He works for the charity Mental Health Foundation and was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager. He described how he lost jobs because of his illness and was turned down from loans and insurance. The stigma associated with his diagnosis made his life difficult. In his opinion, “there is a little bit of madness in all of us”. He wants to change the way we think about mental illness as a society: “madness underpins our diversity”.
The event at the Cambridge Union Society was a great success. Many people watched the debate in the chamber or streamed online. There was also a strong involvement on twitter under the #CUSMentalHealth hashtag. Attracting such interest in discussing mental health is one step in the right direction.
Written by Julia Gottwald