Beyond stigma, there’s a role for mental health education

The 2012 Singapore Mental Health Study reported that 5.8% of the local adult population are affected by depression during their lifetime. The researchers of the study found that only a third of those with a mental illness in their lifetime had sought the help of mental health professionals (Today Online, 13 Oct 2015).

According to the same study, only 10% of the population did not subscribe to the belief that those with a mental illness “could get better if they wanted to” (The Straits Times, 6 Oct 2015). The other 90% would likely agree that “a person who has mental illness is seen as someone who is weak” (The Straits Times, “A healthy mind isn’t a given for anyone”, 10 Feb 2016) and that “depression is a failure of will” (The New York Times, “7 Thoughts From a Chronically Unhappy Person”, 21 April 2015).

But stigma is not the only reason why people who experience symptoms of depression, burnout, or anxiety do not seek professional help. Aside from prejudicial attitudes, the ability to recognise the warning signs of psychological distress remain a major barrier to mental health care. A 2015 study of 2219 Canadian employees revealed that of the participants objectively identified by the study authors to be experiencing depression, more than half “did not recognize a need to seek help” (ScienceDaily, 7 Oct 2015). But the fact of the matter is that poor mental health literacy is not unique to the community of that study. A 2014 study by IMH on local residents’ understanding of common mental disorders including depression revealed that just over half the respondents surveyed were able to accurately identify the signs and symptoms of depression (Channel News Asia, 6 Oct 2015).

Yes, we should support campaigns to reduce stigma. But, it would only be successful if it were to be accompanied by mental health education programmes which are not only about dementia (it is the only one of the top 3 mental health conditions of local concern) but which also reach the community including those in school and those in the workforce.

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