Mental Health Campaigning in the 1980s

By Caitlin Parr

*TW – Discussions of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, postnatal depression, self-harm, psychosis, schizophrenia and stigma surrounding mental health*

When I reminisce on growing up in the noughties and 2010s there is no prominent memory of mental health being discussed in depth. There were no wellbeing hours in school; few conversations on what to do or who to reach out to if you are struggling; no lessons around depression, anxiety, or eating disorders without the suggestion of a stigma being present; no education on conditions or experiences such as psychosis or schizophrenia without connotations attached. It’s hard to imagine that there have been campaigns to stop this discomfort people feel when discussing mental health going on for at least 40 years, especially when you consider there was still a clear apprehension in talking about our mental health even in those recent school years. Somehow, it feels like the real conversations have only really started to infiltrate into society since the birth of aesthetic Instagram stories of facts, stats, and motivational wellness quotes. But how far do we have left to go? Should there still be a stigma after those 40 years?

Even alongside the ever-growing digital mental health campaigning revolution, there is still a stigma existing surrounding talking about our mental health. It would be easy to feel that we are still right at the starting line of the marathon to abolish the stigma but, in reality, this is a race that we have been running since at least the 1980s. At the time, mental illness was simultaneously the most widely suffered of disease groups in the UK and the most neglected area in our public health system. It was time to move forward in how those experiencing mental health problems were supported and safely cared for.

The foundations laid for mental health and welfare support that we are still fighting for today were laid in the early 1980s, with legislation such as the Mental Health Act of 1983 being instated by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. The law outlined the basis of rights that a mentally unwell inpatient had if they had to be hospitalised or sectioned, against their will, for their own health and safety or for the protection of others around them. And though, far from perfect or even overly-compassionate, the Act (currently under consultation to be improved and made more inclusive) did provide a starting point for identifying the rights of formal mental health patients and provided even more insight into where campaigning groups and welfare charities could develop to support patients and their families outside of the Act. (More information on the Mental Health Act 1983).

Following the Act, wellbeing-supporting charities and groups populated the country. And subsequently, as welfare campaigns began to proliferate around the world in the 1980s, it became more common for celebrities and public figures to share their struggles. Before the turn of the century it came to light that Princess Diana had been struggling with depression, postnatal depression, bulimia and self-harm during the 80s. Being ‘The People’s Princess’ and a sociocultural icon, Diana’s openness around these topics provided much comfort and inspiration to others suffering, with Time Magazine even proclaiming that “thousands of people changed their lives because Diana talked about hers”. As mental health features and conversations around eating disorders made it to the fore of mainstream media repeatedly, and because of such an influential ‘normal’ person like Diana, society transformed and people began to consider accepting that anyone in their lives could be struggling with their mental health and needed support more than they needed to be stigmatised.

Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation dedicated their campaigns and outreach in the 1980s to growing public awareness of mental health, welfare and wellbeing issues — all whilst providing a platform for ‘normal people’ to share their experiences and normalise discussing our mental health. Following these campaigns, the everyday stories of mental health experiences could be shared on a platform alongside those of celebrities — a ground-breaking opportunity for people to tell their story whilst feeling empowered and safe in doing so. The Mental Health Foundation’s chairman has even been known to say that “The measure of the Foundation’s achievement is that for millions of ordinary people the fear, stigma and suffering associated with mental illness is now a thing of the past.”

The Foundation also secured millions of pounds worth of funding to conduct revolutionary research into mental health and its relationship to physical health, environment, and brain chemistry in the 1980s. Community care centres and rehabilitation spaces were also opened under the funding, but struggled to cope with the initial demand following a surge of people finally having the opportunity to talk about their mental health and seek help in a safe and stigma-free environment. You could say that these projects changed the world and made it what it is today, and I don’t think you would be exaggerating in saying so. 

Rethink Mental Illness also did all that they could to tackle stigma in the 80s, with their first ever campaign launching in 1982. They are an organisation started by a group of people who had the shared experience of caring for loved ones with schizophrenia. This personal experience meant that the group could empathise with carers, family members, and friends of those who were suffering with such a stigmatised illness at the time, and knew how to support them.

After this legislative change; the birth of new campaigns, charities, and organisations; a change of mental health representation in the media; and, the digital mental health revolution — is there still a stigma? Yes. Too much of a stigma. In Cardiff alone, there are countless student groups such as Mind Your Head, Talk It Out, and Saib Cymru that are all working towards tackling the stigma around talking about our mental health openly — but, incredible as they are, they should not still need to be campaigning on this front in 2021. With 1 in 4 people predicted to experience mental health problems at one stage in their life (and that statistic predicted to change following the Coronavirus lockdowns and losses), there is no excuse in 2021 for still having negative preconceived ideas of a person just because they are experiencing anxiety or depression in this current climate, for example.

There is evidence to suggest that attitudes towards mental health are improving in the UK, with research such as the Time to Change ‘Attitudes to Mental Illness 2014 Research Report’ showing that compared to the early 1990s more people would feel comfortable living “next door to someone who has been mentally ill” and would also now disagree with the statement “people with mental illness are a burden on society” (just two examples of many that the research covered).

Without the 1980s, and the influence of those such as Princess Diana, we would be even further behind in eradicating all stigma around mental health. And, without the 1980s we would not have campaigns or research conducted at the time that still helps thousands of individuals who are struggling today. This legacy of the decade is like no other, but we still have so far to go. Perhaps, in another 40 years time we will look back on the 2020s as another ground-breaking decade — a time where kindness and community was learned, subsequently overruling stigma and stereotypes surrounding the mental health of a nation that desperately needs to be looking after it’s collective welfare and wellbeing right now.