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Why people don’t get treatment for mental illness

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Dr. Mathijs Lucassen and Dr. Jonathan Leach explain five common reasons why people don’t get treatment for mental illness when they should.

Why people don’t get treatment for mental illness? An illustration of man crouched over. Inside his head there is a black crow symbolising a loss of hope, one the reasons someone might not seek help for their mental health
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©Joey Guidone / Behance CC BY-NC-ND 4.0


Dr. Mathijs Lucassen and Dr. Jonathan Leach

Why people don’t get treatment for mental illness

How do we recognize if a reaction to a stressful situation has developed into a mental health problem?

Chances are that within your lifetime, you will experience some form of mental health problem, the most common of these being depression and anxiety. But because most people with a mental health condition will never access any formal types of support or treatment, many of these mental health problems will go undiagnosed.

Longitudinal studies (i.e., research conducted with the same people over many years) support the idea that experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition or disorder at some stage during a person’s life is the norm, not the exception. A 2017 study by Schaefer and colleagues established that over 80% of participants from their health and development study were found to have a diagnosable mental health condition, from the time of their birth to midlife. This was among a group of more than 1,000 people studied over a four-decade period.

Most people will experience mental ill-health at some time in our lives. So why is it so hard for people to recognize the signs and symptoms themselves, and subsequently access treatment? Here are five reasons why people don’t get treatment for mental illness:

People are worried about the stigma of mental illness

Regrettably, there is still a stigma associated with being diagnosed with a mental illness condition. Understandably, given this stigma, people with mental health problems, or mental illness, can worry that they will get judged and seen as weak, so many can end up keeping their experiences to themselves or denying that their problems exist. Fortunately, there is now better protection against discrimination on the basis of mental illness, as a result of legislation like the U.S. (1990), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Protects, or the U.K. (2010) Equality Act. Legal protection should make it easier for people to open up about their mental health problems, especially in the workplace. In addition to these legal protections, large-scale public campaigns have sought to challenge mental health stigma, and increase awareness of its negative impact. Despite this, many people don’t want to open up due to the stigma of mental illness.

Mental health problems in the mild to moderate range

Every individual is different, and it can be hard for us to recognize if what we are experiencing is ‘normal’ or not. For the majority of people, this will take the form of something in the ‘mild to moderate range’ of difficulties. For example, temporary periods of feeling low are common. They are often a normal reaction to the stressors we can experience. For most people seeking support from their friends and/or family members can help them get through these difficult times. Self-help resources and interventions like mindfulness can also be useful in assisting people in overcoming life’s challenges.

If your low mood or other mental health problems persist, affecting your sleep, relationships, job, or appetite, you may require some additional help. This means a visit to your general practitioner (GP) would be a good idea.

People don’t recognize when their mental health is really awful?

It is essential to be able to recognize when a mental health problem has progressed from mild or moderate, to becoming a significant issue. Many people can struggle to notice in themselves when their mental health problems are more severe. This might seem surprising, but because a person can be suffering over a long time, their symptoms may not initially have a dramatic impact.

In addition to this, even when mental health problems can be debilitating, a person may still feel that their issues aren’t bad enough to warrant professional treatment. If you have persistent worries, distressing feelings, or frightening experiences, it can really help to get support and information. This may initially involve visiting your GP. Sometimes people may need specialized mental health services, and a GP can help people access those services. GPs can also assist people with their mental health problems not requiring specialized care.

Securing and paying for treatment is a real concern

There is a range of supports and interventions available for people with mental health problems. But it can be hard to know what to look for when attempting to get help. It can be overwhelming and exhausting, just finding the right type of support for you. Do you want a psychotherapist? A practitioner psychologist? A counselor? Is medication an option? Is a combination of medication and face-to-face therapy the best interventions for you? What is funded by your insurance, and what do you need to pay for yourself? There are also the challenges associated with getting a session or appointment that is at a time and place that is convenient for you.

A lack of hope

Hope is of fundamental importance to all humans. Still, when someone is struggling with mental health problems, this can be compromised. Sometimes people will not access help, even if they recognize that they have significant issues, in part because they feel so negatively about their future. A lack of hope about one’s future is a sign that a person needs to seek help. It could be from a family member, your GP, or a trusted friend.

Most of us will experience an episode of mental illness during our lifetime. The challenge is recognizing the signs and seeking appropriate help when you need it. One of the best things you can do is to open up and talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling and ask for help when you need it.


If you’re feeling suicidal, or you know someone who is, please reach out to someone. If you’re in the US, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255. If you’re not in the US, click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.

Caption:

Hope is of fundamental importance to all humans. So, when someone is struggling with mental health problems, this can be compromised. This loss of hope is one of the reasons someone might not seek help for their mental health.

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