Sir Winston Churchill: Greatest Briton Used as an Anti-Stigma Icon

By London, Carlyle; Scriven, Angela et al. | The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Sir Winston Churchill: Greatest Briton Used as an Anti-Stigma Icon


London, Carlyle, Scriven, Angela, Lalani, Nimira, The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health


Kjell Magne Bondevik, former Prime Minister of Norway, made the brave choice on being diagnosed with depression to go public and name the illness. In doing this Bondevik made a positive contribution to the de-mystification of mental illness and joined a distinguished list of people who are renowned despite experiencing mental health problems. The list includes, to name just a few: Vincent Van Gogh (artist); Buzz Aldrin (astronaut); political leaders Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill; composers Handel, Schumann, Chopin; and more recently, sports personality Kelly Holmes.

The naming of people who have achieved greatness while suffering from mental health problems gives a clear message to the general public that mental illness is not a barrier to a successful life. Because of their status, these people help to challenge the misconceptions sustaining stigma and act as positive role models.

Mental illness impacts indiscriminately on large sections of the UK population. Stigma is a hidden burden that can result in a delay in seeking help and is a serious inhibitor to social inclusion. Such is the experience of stigma, that people with mental illness frequently internalize the discrimination and can suffer loss of their self-esteem and confidence. Indeed, their families and friends can also feel stigmatized by association.

Stigma towards people with a mental illness persists despite the many anti-stigma campaigns. Well-known, respected figures that have experienced mental illness can, if they declare their illness, do much to challenge and debunk negative stereotypes and further positive attitude change.

The iconic use of famous people who have achieved success despite their mental illness is an important anti-stigma idea. Churchill, voted the Greatest Briton in a recent national poll, offered motivational and inspirational leadership of the British people during the Second World War, while at the same time engaging in a personal struggle with depression.

Rethink, the largest severe mental illness charity in the UK, chose to use Sir Winston Churchill in a recent anti-stigma campaign. They commissioned a statue of Churchill in a straitjacket to represent an iconic figure in a de-stigmatizing role. The statue was clearly designed to influence attitudes in a positive way, but may have inadvertently achieved the opposite. Nicholas Soames (Churchill's grandson) in an interview with the Sun newspaper (2006 WorldNetDaily.com, posted 12 March) responded strongly to the portrayal of his grandfather. He argued forcefully that the statue was 'not only insulting, it's pathetic, it is grossly offensive to Sir Winston and his millions of admirers'.

One reason for the controversy surrounding the statue is the use of a straitjacket, which is a potent symbol of a negative stereotype. It is associated with poor treatment for the mentally ill, physical sequestration, and is a throwback to an earlier time when the mentally ill were housed in lunatic asylums. The artistic portrayal of mental illness has been largely negative, reflecting the mentally ill as deviant from society's norms, with the iconography of mental illness boasting a gallery of the melancholic and patients in straitjackets or other restraints. …

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