While many of us might be thinking of Megan Markle this week as she prepares for her big day on Saturday, this time last year attention was much more squarely on her soon to be husband.
Prince Harry’s public admissions around the grief he suffered regarding the death of his mother and the mental health support he sought as a result, has had, I think, immeasurable impact on public awareness of mental health and attitudes towards those suffering mental illness.
We at the College could not be more grateful for awareness raising and personally I am already seeing the difference in my work. Reducing stigma and raising awareness has been vital in making people less afraid to come forward when their mental health is deteriorating. Initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week continue to encourage public conversation on what was once a highly stigmatised topic.
Having worked as a psychiatrist for over two decades the growth of interest in the illnesses I have spent my life treating is wonderful to see. But it doesn’t end here. There’s still a long way to go.
Societally we might think we’re ‘clued up’ on mental health, but when surveyed by YouGov on behalf of RCPsych, a quarter of the public were unaware that addiction to opioids is more deadly than cervical cancer, and just 42% realise that it takes a psychiatrist to diagnose bipolar disorder.
Whilst awareness and acceptance of mental conditions at the milder end of the spectrum is near commonplace, the same cannot be said for severe illnesses such as bipolar, addictions and schizophrenia. Stigma and misunderstanding still pervade and some conditions are more readily accepted than others.
Why does lack of understanding matter? Lack of awareness of the most severe mental health conditions mean the public are not alert to how serious mental illness can be. Research conducted by Ipsos MORI shows that only 59% of the public expect a referral to a consultant for an eating disorder compared to 86% for cancer.
This prevents the early intervention that is so key to the best chance of recovery. If people know the early signs of a severe mental illness, and know who to look to for support, a great deal of suffering can be avoided.
Unfortunately, for those who are able to come forward and seek support, there is still progress to be made in the services available. This month’s interim report from the Review into the Mental Health Act emphasises that “those with the most severe forms of mental illness have the greatest needs, and continue to be the most neglected and discriminated against.”
RCPsych is supportive of the Review and hope it can provide a blue print for better mental health support in the future. Effective help can be provided for those in need. But the system is creaking at the seams, with not enough Consultant Psychiatrists and those who make up the team of specialists, such as clinical psychologists, mental health nurses, occupational therapists and social workers.
It was our former president, and chair of the Mental Health Act Review Professor Sir Simon Wessely who caused controversy by saying: “Every time we have a Mental Health Awareness Week my spirits sink,” from fear that “all we do is raise awareness but don’t provide more people [staff] better circumstances, better support.”
Yet of course awareness is crucial. Awareness pushes people to come forward and seek the help they need, to understand the needs of others suffering mental illness, and to push for change in the services available. Anything which increases public awareness and the destigmatizing of mental health conditions is to be welcomed.