Stigma is one of those words used so frequently in the mental health field that you almost expect it to be an acronym for something else. Tackling it is certainly one of the great challenges in mental health, and an area mental health foundation trust applicants are almost statutorily optimistic about.

The scale of the task cannot be underestimated. Surveys show that around 90 per cent of people believe that there is shame attached to mental illness, and even more would be afraid to tell an employer if they experienced symptoms or were being treated for it. While most people are absolutely certain that they would seek treatment for many illnesses, such as heart disease, asthma and ulcers, less than half are likely to seek treatment for mental illness.

All this has to be set against our knowledge that at any one time, one adult in six suffers from mental health problems of varying severity; one person in four will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year and 60-70 per cent of adults will, at some time in their lives, experience depression or worry of sufficient severity to influence their daily activities. Much of the media still habitually uses offensive and derogatory terms for mental illness in a manner that became unacceptable for racial terms soon after the sitcom Love Thy Neighbour came off TV.

In 2004, a five-year plan to tackle stigma and discrimination on mental health grounds was launched by the National Institute for Mental Health in England, but progress has been limited.

Maybe the baton now passes to the mental health foundation trusts, and applicants, that have devoted considerable resources to building up their public membership. Almost all of us have attached to our membership strategies some sort of ambition to combat stigma and it is likely that our membership will hold us to account on these campaign pledges.

There are now tens of thousands of mental health foundation trust members across the country, and rising. We have a real opportunity to harness their commitment, knowledge and skills to mount a major effort, up and down the land, against stigma. In Camden and Islington our plans include:

  • dealing systematically with stigma in the local media, making media professionals think carefully about how they deal with issues related to mental ill health;

  • working with primary care trusts to re-energise mental health promotion campaigns;

  • actively promoting the steps that workplaces can take to reduce stigma, improve performance, retain staff and improve the working environment;

  • recognising that ignorance is often the root of discrimination. The public is largely unaware of how much prejudice people with mental health problems face. So we will use personal stories to highlight the many ways in which stigma and discrimination are experienced.

This is a problem that must be addressed: while stigma and discrimination persist at current levels, mental health services are working with one hand tied behind their backs.