x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Stigma puts mentally ill off treatment

The stigma and prejudice surrounding mental illness must be removed to encourage sufferers to seek help in its early stages, health experts say.

DUBAI // The stigma and prejudice surrounding mental illness must be removed to encourage sufferers to seek help in its early stages, health experts said yesterday. "There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, where people would rather attribute a problem to a physical illness than as a symptom to mental health," said Paula Keenan, project manager for Community Mental Health, an initiative set up by Rashid Hospital.

Family members would rather blame physical complaints, such as stomach upsets or headaches, on physical problems, for instance diabetes, than consider them to be symptoms of anxiety, depression or stress, she added. "At the moment, we are seeing patients at the late stages, where they need to be admitted or medicated, because the symptoms are not being recognised by themselves or by others." The hospital hosted an awareness event on mental health issues yesterday in the run-up to International Mental Illness Day on Friday.

"One in five people suffer from a type of mental illness," said Dr Amal Alhalyan, specialist registrar in psychiatry at the hospital. While people are unaware of the symptoms, mental illness is a taboo, and is often blamed on a lack of religion, she said. Depression was considered by some people to be a sign of evil spirits or possession, and they would resort to home-made remedies to try to get rid of it.

"We try and steer away from the religious aspect of things, and explain that depression can be due to lifestyle choices or organic links, such as brain changes," Dr Alhalyan said. "But the biggest problem is trying to get people to understand what it is, and educate them on it." The World Health Organisation has forecast that depression will be the leading cause of illness by 2020, overtaking cardio-related disease.

In 2007, the organisation said 154 million people around the world suffered from depression, but very few sought treatment. nsamaha@thenational.ae