Making people with mental health issues wear wristbands is a terrible idea

Whenever it seems we’re making some real progress towards ending the stigma surrounding mental illness we’re served with a harsh reminder that we still have a long, long way to go.

The most recent case in point: Tory parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Chamali Fernando, spoke at a meeting for “Cambridge Keep Our NHS Public” earlier this week and suggested that people with mental health issues wear colour-coded wristbands to make it clear to authorities that they have “certain conditions.”

While Fernando’s intentions may have been good — because undoubtedly there do need to be measures put in place to improve the treatment of the mentally ill by police officers and legal professionals — she’s now facing a backlash from social media users, mental health professionals, and, of course, her political opponents. Fernando’s main competitor for her parliamentary seat, Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, may have a clear ulterior motive for ridiculing her suggestion but he was completely right to point out that making the mentally ill stand out with wristbands would do nothing but increase the amount of stigma they have to deal with.

Fernando has also faced criticism from Labour’s former shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

More: “Get the Picture” aims to change how we view people living with mental illness

Her proposal displays a complete failure to understand what life is like for people with mental health problems. It would be a little like wearing a badge on your jacket saying “I’m depressed,” or “I have Krohn’s Disease” or “I’m diabetic.” Do those who suffer from any kind of ill health — mental or physical — want everyone they meet to be aware of it? Of course they don’t. Talking about mental health issues can be an extremely positive thing, and it definitely helps to break down the stigma, but it’s something that should be done at the right time, in the right place and with the right person.

While such a huge amount of stigma prevails, drawing attention to mental illness with a wristband (or a badge or a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I am mentally ill”) runs the huge risk of making the problem worse.

A petition calling for Fernando to stand down has received only 937 signatures, suggesting that the millions of Brits with mental health issues have more important things to worry about than a politician’s ill-thought out comments. They know that wearing a wristband won’t get rid of the stigma they face. Only education and a huge collective effort to be understanding and supportive will do that.

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