Keep talking

IN BRIEF - 11TH MAY 2017

In Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr Najem Al-Falahe, medical director and lead consultant psychiatrist at London and Surrey Care, talks about the importance of tackling the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and why we need to keep the conversation going

Initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week are extremely important—not just for the mental health of individuals, but for society.

While the situation has got much better over the last 20 years, there is unfortunately still considerable stigma surrounding mental health issues in the UK. Why is that? I think the answer is that when we talk about mental health, we are dealing with the brain—the organ that determines personality—and people tend to judge each other according to personality. Hiding something that might be deemed ‘abnormal’ is used as protection against the judgmental attitudes of other people and of society.

Increased media discussion
This is improving: Stephen Fry has spoken about his mental illness; Prince Harry has recently discussed the fact that he sought help after suffering for many, many years following the death of his mother. Increased discussion of these things in the newspapers, in the media, is extremely important. People who are affected are starting to speak out and from that, others can better understand these conditions and see that it is possible for them to be treated—for some, it requires long term treatment, but we don’t need to be afraid of that.

The interesting thing that we’ve noted as professionals is that people tend to view these illnesses in different ways. It is more ‘acceptable’, so to speak, to have bipolar than to have multiple personality disorder, for example. People seem to accept the former, but not the latter. A patient will now come to me and say, “Doctor, it seems I have bipolar.” But when we discuss the problem further, and I suggest that multiple personality disorder or schizophrenia is more probable, they don’t like it. I think it is because they are less aware of these conditions, and less informed, which makes them a scarier prospect.

People who are affected are starting to speak out and from that, others can better understand these conditions

Dramatic change
However, it is important to note that our treatment of mental illness has changed dramatically. Previously if you had a mental illness, they would lock you in an asylum. Now, it is possible to have treatment at home. Even those with the more extreme mental illnesses can access the support they need to remain part of society. They can continue with their day-to-day life, they can work and contribute to society. The prospects are not nearly as threatening as they once were, which again has helped with people’s acceptance.

Awareness among medical students and GPs has also grown. There is greater emphasis on mental health in education—it has been part of medical training for a long time, but in recent years it has been given greater depth. This in turn means that doctors are better able to educate the public. All of this has contributed to improved understanding and a lessening of the stigma surrounding mental illness—but we still have a long way to go.

The best thing to do if you are concerned about your mental health is to go to your GP. Or, if you have insurance or are able to pay, you can go to a psychiatrist directly. If you are worried about a friend or family member, the best thing you can do is get as much information as possible—contact a GP or contact a psychiatrist for advice. Treatment is available. That is the key: helping people to accept that the brain is an important part of the body and any part of the body can become unwell, as well as making people aware of the options that are available. No one needs to suffer in silence.