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About a quarter of the UK population will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with mixed anxiety and depression the most common mental disorder in Britain. This pattern repeats itself in most developed countries. Despite the personal suffering and inconvenience it causes, most people still don’t or won’t seek help, and of those who do most will not get the help they need or will have to wait a very long time to get it.

The statistics about this are regularly pumped out, along with abundant research into the debilitating effects that the so-called ‘lesser psychiatric disorders’ have on people, their families and communities. Despite the stigma that leads many people to “keep things to themselves”, mental health is not a private matter. Up to 30% of employees will experience a psychological difficulty during their working lives; this impacts on employee performance, rates of illness, absenteeism, accidents and staff turnover.

While the social and economic costs are undeniable, the real tragedy is the level of personal suffering that this causes. Most psychological conditions can be cured or alleviated with the right treatment. Despite popular stereotypes about mental health issues, psychological problems are neither mysterious nor a sign of individual weakness; they are simply part of the human condition.

Think about this; at any given moment more people you know are suffering from depression than from a common cold. A cold can last a few weeks at most, depression can last a lifetime and often has tragic consequences. (There are seasonal variations with colds, but you get my drift). Furthermore, depression can be cured in most cases; we still have no cure for the common cold.

What stops us asking for help?

Although research over the last 30 years claims that attitudes are softening towards getting help with psychological problems and people more likely to seek treatment, recent trends  among younger people (who are generally seen as more open), are seeing this reversed.

There are plenty of studies explaining what the barriers are and offering suggested solutions. These generally involve better public awareness, employer involvement, education and a more positive media focus. While such suggestions are commendable, the real barriers are that people choose not to get help. Whether through ignorance (they don’t realise they can be helped), or inertia (they just won’t seek help), the results are the same; people suffer needlessly, have poorer quality lives and often cause concern to those around them.

Based on various studies I have compiled a list 10 factors which act as barriers to asking for treatment.

  1. Fear of embarrassment,
  2. Fear of change
  3. Fears involving treatment stereotypes
  4. Fears associated with past experience with the mental health service system
  5. Fears of negative judgment (stigma)
  6. Fear of treatment associated with specific conditions
  7. Fear of self-disclosure, wishing to conceal personal information perceived as negative
  8. Fear of increased painful feelings which, it is believed, can be triggered by therapy
  9. Fear associated with damaged future prospects
  10. Cost, either due to personal financial difficulties, the imagined cost of prolonged treatment, or both.

A new focus

Mental health problems are among the most important contributors to the burden of disease and disability worldwide. Top-down efforts by politicians and institutions are commendable and much needed, but these are slow solutions to an ever-present and rapidly growing problem. Since every case of mental illness is also a story of personal struggle, we also need a bottom-up approach to reach people where they are in their lives, homes, at work and socially.

The factors above are based on common myths about anything ‘in the mind’, mental illness stereotypes, stigma, ignorance and false belief are all contributing factors that keep people from seeking help with emotional problems. While political and other efforts might influence attitudes in society, it is personal attitudes that keep people stuck in mental health turmoil.

See also:

MIND, The Fundamental Facts.

Morrell, M., Metzl, E., Seeking Treatment in California; Motivators, Barriers and Perceptions.

Mental Health Foundation, The Fundamental Facts; The latest facts and figures on mental health


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