10/10/2013 10:03 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Making a Change on World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health day. Another year, another opportunity to reflect on the progress we've made on improving the lives of people with illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia...

Today is World Mental Health day. Another year, another opportunity to reflect on the progress we've made on improving the lives of people with illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.

Of course, I'd like to say that we've achieved equality for all at last, that we've overcome the stigma, prejudice and ignorance that those with mental health issues face on a daily basis.

Sadly, that's not yet the reality. The recent outrage over Asda, Tesco and other retailers selling fancy dress costumes which trivialise mental illness demonstrates just how far we have to go in changing attitudes.

It may sound bold but there are comparisons to be made here with the civil rights movement. The mental health community has to fight against similar prejudice which used to exist towards black people. I can remember when golliwogs were printed on the back of jam jars, when marrying someone of a different colour was a social taboo and telling racist jokes was not only commonplace but also acceptable.

The type of casual prejudice where supermarkets and online retailers sell 'mental patient' costumes complete with meat cleavers is the equivalent of the last bastion of racism. These tactless and insensitive attitudes stem from ignorance, the sort of ignorance where the perpetrators make light of serious issues by remarking 'It's just a joke.' This is the sort of 'humour' perpetuated in the 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour where the studio audience laughs at every reference to the word 'sambo' and 'honky.'

These companies should know better. Besides, they're alienating their own customers: one third of the UK population has experienced mental ill health. What if they had been selling costumes so people could dress up as cancer patients? The suggestion would never have got beyond the ideas meeting. So why is it not acceptable to make fun of people with a physical health issue yet ok to demonise those in society who suffer from a psychological illness?

The reason is partly because many still wrongly believe that diseases which affect the mind are self-inflicted. That it's your fault if you suffer from anxiety or you are so depressed you're unable to work. Like poverty, mental health is partly a political issue. You either believe it's triggered by factors beyond someone's control. Or you believe there are just feckless, lazy people who should stop whingeing and not expect society to support them.

Parity of esteem is the issue here. The way to overcome discrimination is to ensure that mental health issues are treated in the same way as physical health issues. At the moment that's not the case. Mental health patients still have to wait longer for therapy than they do for care for physical ailments.

So how else do we overcome stigma surrounding mental health? What happened in the civil rights movement was firstly that black people fought back, just as the mental health lobby has done against these retailers. The response from charities was inspired. They turned Asda's 'joke' around and encouraged followers to Tweet pictures of themselves in their mental health 'costumes.' The result was images of ordinary people going about their everyday lives: mothers with their children, office workers and people with friends on holiday. Normal people like you and me.

However, real change can only happen when everyone, not just the victims of prejudice, begins to question the type of society they are living in. A mark of a civilised society is recognising when something is unacceptable. The civil rights movement achieved success when white people realised that a society where not everyone was equal undermines us all.

So we all need to make a stand and remain vigilant. By bringing attention to the victims of abuse, we create conditions where it's not acceptable to make prejudiced remarks. I hope this world mental health day marks the start of another movement: one where mental health and physical health are understood, treated and respected equally.