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Published: 07/11/2002, Volume II2, No. 5830 Page 14 15

It takes guts for mental health service users to volunteer for a media interview.But That is just what some did in a Scottish Executive-funded campaign challenging the stigma of mental illness. Jennifer Trueland reports

It is a daunting task for anyone to stand up and tell their story in front of a mass of journalists. Let alone when you're part of a stigmatised group.

But last month, the launch of a new mental health campaign in Scotland saw several brave men and women become the new darlings of the media.

For example, a young woman diagnosed with schizophrenia, who is also a primary school teacher, will see her story told in Vogue. Others, who have all been users of mental health services, shared their experiences in the pages of newspapers and on television and radio.

One, a former psychiatric social worker, told how his mental health deteriorated when working in Canada near the North Pole, which is known as one of the world's suicide capitals.

In one week, he personally had to cut down 14 young people who had killed themselves.

Other service users spoke of being victimised by employers, insurance companies and public services and of how they were shunned by colleagues and acquaintances.

It was all powerful stuff, all the more so because it is still unusual for people with mental health problems to speak up about it.

'You wouldn't see a story about race which didn't quote somebody who was black, yet you rarely see a story about mental health which quotes a service user, ' says Linda Dunion, director of the Scottish Executive-funded national anti-stigma campaign 'See Me'.

'But There is nothing more powerful than people talking from first-hand experience, so we felt that the first-person voice was crucial to this campaign.'

Ms Dunion, an experienced media operator, knew there were risks involved for anyone agree ing to be interv iewed by journalists. So See Me had a selection process to ensure that those who agreed to take part understood the implications and had proper support.

'We recruited very carefully and made it clear there was media training available for those who wanted it, ' explains Ms Dunion.

'We wanted to make sure that people had thought through how they would feel if they saw their picture in a newspaper or magazine or saw themselves on television and how they would feel about other people seeing them.'

About a dozen people were happy to be interviewed while a further 30 were willing to have their stories used anonymously.

The next stage was a day's media training, where a former television journalist and print reporter put the potential case studies through their paces.

This process wasn't without its hitches. Service user Pauline Royle admits she spent some of the day crying in the toilets because she felt the media trainers wanted nice positive stories, rather than hearing it how it was. Somewhat to her surprise, however, when she spoke up about how she was feeling, the trainers' attitudes changed.

The training involved mock interviews, both radio and television-style and advice on how to focus and get a message across.

Though initially worried about how she would cope with a whole day, Ms Royle, a former social worker, found the experience actually brought her out of herself.

'By the time I did the television interview I was my old self, who was vivacious and bubbly, ' says Ms Royle, who has a history of depression. 'I seemed to find her again when I got on my soap box.'

Going on television as therapy?

Not quite.Ms Royle was due to give an interview, but it was cancelled at the last minute and she was less happy with the suggested new slot. She pulled out but says: 'I didn't feel bad about it because they had messed us around.'

'That was absolutely fine, 'Ms Dunion says. 'We have made it clear all along that people only have to do what they feel comfortable doing.'

Raising awareness by generating positive media stories is only the first stage of the campaign, which is backed by advertising, leaflets and posters, all proclaiming: 'See me, I am a person, not a label.'

The organisation will also be challenging use of inappropriate language and images in the press and rewarding good practice.

See Me will also be targeting employers - public and private - and the public services.

'That is for the future, but yes, we will be trying to change attitudes in health and other public services, ' she says. 'But we will not be swooping in and telling people they have to change.We'll be working with organisations like the Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of GPs and Unison, who are already doing a lot to tackle discrimination.'

From the experiences of some of the service users, it appears that the public sector has a lot to learn.

Ken Webster, a former psychiatric social worker and nurse, who now works in advocacy and who spoke at the launch, says he was forced to resign by 'embarrassed' bosses after being sectioned and spending time in a psychiatric hospital.

And Ms Royle says her employers, a local authority, did not have the will to change her case load on the advice of the medical officer, which would have allowed her to stay at work.

'If I would lost a leg there would have been wheelchair ramps going up, but It is different when It is a mental illness, ' she says.

She admits to having been nervous about attending Royal Edinburgh Hospital as an outpatient - the psychiatric hospital where she had previously worked as a social worker. 'I was worried that former colleagues would see me and ask what I was doing there.

But I do not feel like that any more. If I am in the hospital, even to visit someone, and I meet someone I used to work with, I am quite happy. I just laugh and say: 'I am barmy!''