The prevalence of mental health problems has rapidly increased over time. The extent to which this captures changes in self-reporting due to decreasing stigma is unclear. We explore this by comparing time trends in mental health and stigma-related indicators across English regions.
We produced annual estimates of self-reported mental disorders (SRMDs) across waves of the Health Survey for England (2009–18, n = 78,226) and three stigma-related indicators (knowledge, attitudes, and intended behaviour) across waves of the Attitudes Towards Mental Illness survey (2009–19, n = 17,287). Differences in trends were tested across nine Government Office Regions using linear models, adjusting for age, sex, ethnicity, marital status, and social class.
In 2009, SRMDs did not vary by region (p = 0.916), whereas stigma-related indicators did (p < 0.001), with London having the highest level of stigma and the North East having lowest level of stigma. Between 2009 and 2018, the prevalence of SRMDs increased from 4.3 to 9.1%. SRMDs increased and stigma-related indicators improved at different rates across regions over time (SRMDs p = 0.024; stigma-related indicators p < 0.001). London reported the lowest increase in SRMDs (+ 0.3 percentage point per year) yet among the largest improvements in attitudes and intended behaviour across regions.
Improvements in attitudes towards mental illness did not mirror changes in self-reported mental health problems across English regions over the past decade. The findings do not support the argument that changes in public stigma, at least when defined at this regional scale, have been driving the increase in self-reported mental health indicators in recent years.