Informing the World: How to Change Public Attitudes to Mental Health
Although it affects individual patients in a deep and profound way, mental health is not just a private phenomenon; mental illness is a public health concern, too, and the social effects when left untreated can be huge.
Many mental health problems, for example, are often strongly associated with a number of behaviors that are damaging to public health, including drug abuse and alcoholism. But despite the strides made towards acceptance of mental health conditions in recent years, public awareness of mental illness and the distress it can cause is still not sufficient to help defeat the problem.
And while awareness raising programs have had some positive effects in high income countries, the problem is particularly bad in middle and low income countries, where very little research into the effect stigma has on patients has been carried out. In Nepal, for example, it’s believed that no public health education programs have ever been introduced and that primary health care practitioners hardly ever treat mental health problems.
Focus on treatments, not dangers
Some mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can invoke empathy and kindness in those who hear the stories of patients.
But other mental health conditions cause a different response in many people, and often these feelings come from a place of ignorance. Schizophrenia, for example, is often seen as a real danger that needs to be kept out of the public sphere, and this lack of awareness simply compounds the problem. It’s believed that while three and a half million people experience schizophrenia in the USA for instance, around half of them have never received treatment.
But help is at hand. By working to encourage schizophrenia patients and those around them to encourage schizophrenia patients to get help rather than stay silent, the problems schizophrenia causes wider American society – such as the $18 billion which the American economy is believed to have lost year-on-year from the disease in recent decades – will be less likely to occur.
Education: the key to change
It’s never too early to start teaching people about the importance of looking after those with mental health conditions and helping them seek treatment.
A rigorous program of public health education has the potential to transform public attitudes to mental illness, and it will also equip those who develop symptoms later in life with the skills they need to seek treatment, get better and ultimately cut the cost their conditions impose on society and the economy.
Ultimately, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go to build awareness of mental illness and the problems it can cause. But by pursuing a positive approach to treatment and a comprehensive plan of public health education, change really can be achieved.
Chrissy Jones (writer.chrissy
@hickorymail.net) Sagun Paudel (Mail4sagun@gmail.com)