Speech by Mr John Moloney, T.D. Minister of State at the launch of the National Stigma Reduction Campaign ‘See Change’

I am delighted to welcome you all to the launch of the National Stigma Reduction Campaign – ‘See Change’ and in particular I wish to welcome our special guests, Miriam O’Callaghan, Eileen Dunne and Paddy McGowan, who are here with us today and who have pledged their support for this campaign.

As Minister of State with responsibility for Mental Health my objective is to have a person-centred, recovery oriented mental health service and to improve the lives of people affected by mental illness. There have been significant achievements and developments in the mental health services since the publication of ‘A Vision for Change’ in 2006, and I think this is evidenced in the results of the survey of service users which was published by the National Service Users Executive earlier this year, which reported a very high satisfaction level for some local service areas. These results show that we are getting it right and while there is scope for improvement, our services are certainly moving in the right direction.

On 1st March last I announced my priorities for the coming years which include the closure, at the earliest possible date, of the 15 Victorian and older asylums still in use and for the transfer of patients to more appropriate community based accommodation. The Government has given a commitment that going forward, the proceeds of the sales of psychiatric buildings and lands will be ringfenced to fund the mental health capital programme and a sum of €50m will be provided in 2010 to get the programme underway. The capital programme includes a wide spectrum of mental healthcare facilities and will provide the infrastructure required for a modern mental health service.

My priority for this year is to tackle the ‘stigma’ which is so often associated with mental illness. The truth is that stigma damages people’s lives. It can be deeply hurtful and isolating, and is one of the most significant problems encountered by people with mental health problems. Learning to live with mental health problems is extremely difficult, but this difficulty can be compounded when someone experiences, at first hand, the prejudice caused by stigma. It can also be distressing for the families and friends of those persons.

Stigma can affect all aspects of life, limiting access to employment and housing, harming social relationships and reducing self esteem. Fear of being labelled as having a mental health problem also reduces the likelihood of individuals with mental health difficulties seeking treatment. This issue is of particular concern to me. Do you know that the word ‘stigma’ is of Greek origin and was used to describe a mark or scar left typically when branding animals! I think we can all agree here today that stigma has no place in Irish society.

But the reality is that negative attitudes to mental illness are entrenched early in life, and by adolescence such views are well developed. Children are exposed at an early age to television programmes with crazy, loony characters which serve as objects of amusement, derision or fear. Of course the stigmatisation of individuals with mental health problems is not unique to Ireland, nor is it a recent phenomenon. For centuries individuals with mental disorders have been viewed with fear and suspicion. Many women burnt as witches in Europe and North America in the 16th and 17th centuries are now thought to have been suffering from mental disorders.

People with mental health problems are often seen solely in terms of their health problems and are labelled by it, regardless of their overall contribution to society. But what perhaps singles out the stigmatisation of these people from other potentially marginalised groups, is the lack of voice that they often have in fighting against discrimination.

I firmly believe that the time has come to take up the challenge and tackle this negativity and deliver action. As Minister of State with responsibility for mental health I recognise that we must develop mental health services which are well integrated in society, put the individual at the centre and operate in a way which avoids stigmatisation and exclusion. That task is in hand, but I think collectively and collaboratively as a community, we need to confront the issue of the stigmatisation of mental illness and seek to eliminate it and ensure that persons with mental health difficulties are supported and cherished. We need to encourage all members of society to embrace our individual differences. The world would be a sad, lonely and boring place if we were all the same.

Eliminating the stigma associated with mental ill health will not happen overnight. However the ‘See Change’ campaign, which we are launching here today, has the potential to effect change within Irish society and help lay the necessary foundations for a real and positive transformation of how mental illness is perceived.

The aim of the ‘See Change’ campaign is to reduce the stigma people feel and to encourage them to seek help. The campaign will also aim to inspire people to challenge their beliefs about mental illness and to be more open in their attitudes and behaviour. It will also encourage people to support a friend or loved one who is experiencing a mental health problem.

Our vision is to achieve a change in Irish social attitudes and behaviour and to reduce the level of discrimination and prejudice. In order to help make that vision a reality and to positively change attitudes it is proposed to develop a range of national and local activities aimed at giving focused messages to the general public and target groups. The campaign will include radio programmes, media interviews, a new website, newspaper articles and school presentations.

I am very grateful to all of the partner organisations and individuals in the areas of sport, media, entertainment etc who have agreed to support and promote the message of the ‘See Change’ campaign. Your participation is, I believe, motivational, and will be vital to the success of the campaign.

The campaign will run at least for two years and I hope that by the end of that period, people with mental health difficulties will find it easier to participate as valued members of society with access to meaningful employment, appropriate housing and positive interpersonal relationships.

Before I finish up I would like to sincerely thank John Saunders and Shine for agreeing to co-ordinate this project. I am confident that under John’s direction and stewardship, the ‘See Change’ campaign will enjoy great success, will empower people with mental health problems and will help break the taboo which still surrounds mental illness.

I urge everyone here today to support the campaign – together we can make change happen.

Thank you.