Fifty years ago, our mission was born


This weekend, we mark the 50th anniversary of a newspaper article that changed the way society talks about mental illness and led to the creation of Rethink Mental Illness. We caught up with our CEO Mark Winstanley to ask him about the changes we have seen and what challenges lie ahead. 

On the 9th of May 1970, The Times published an anonymous article by John Pringle. In it, he wrote honestly about his experience of caring for his son who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and the ways in which that diagnosis affected the family. The article resonated with hundreds of carers across the country whose letters flooded in. A community began to grow, and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship was formed. In the 50 years since then, the Fellowship evolved into five charities, including Rethink Mental Illness and Mental Health UK, which directly provide support to thousands of people across the country, and millions more online. With Rethink Mental Illness’ remit now widened to support everyone severely affected by mental illness.

The landscape that John Pringle describes in his article is both alien to us fifty years on and in other ways sadly still recognisable.  

Progress has been made. Public attitudes over time have improved towards people severely affected by mental illness (albeit not as fast and deep as attitudes to mental health more widely). More recently and through the NHS England Long Term Plan, we have started to see the investment in services we have long called for. Services are now being embedded in the community, with the public sector and third sector working together to bring about change. Reflecting the importance of supporting a whole person’s needs, including employment, housing, financial wellbeing and physical health. Change that Rethink Mental Illness has long called for and been instrumental in bringing about. Change that is also reflected in the hard-fought commitment to amend the outdated Mental Health Act.

However, many of the challenges that John Pringle highlighted remain. Improvements in services are not universal, too many people still struggle to get the right treatment at the right time. There are huge problems with the welfare system. People should not have to fight so hard to get the financial support they need to survive at the cost of their mental health. A problem that is compounded by too many people severely affected by mental illness struggling to find fulfilling work - to their cost and society more widely. And crucially we still do not fully recognise the critcial role carers play in propping up a system that has been historically underfunded. 

There is a peculiar symmetry to the fact that the anniversary of this campaign, which changed so much in the mental health landscape, occurs when we are living through a crisis that is actively affecting so many people’s state of mind. Our survey of people living with mental illness found that most respondents (80%) reported that their mental health has gotten worse since lockdown began. Our role in improving the lives of people severely affected by mental illness has never been more vital.

I am enormously proud of the way the charity has responded to the crisis and more broadly the impact we have made over the last fifty years. Through our services, our groups, our campaigns and the advice and information we provide we have shown that with the right support and investment we can improve the lives of people severely affected by mental illness and their carers. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who makes our work possible. Our brilliant staff, our members, our supporters and our volunteers. Together we have created a blueprint and foundation of support that if scaled up will at long last resolve all the issues that John Pringle raised fifty years ago. We have the answers, our mission is to ensure they are implemented.