Mental illnesses 'not all in the mind'

Researchers correct perceptions of respondents in new IMH study

A staff at a community hospital helping a patient suffering from mental illness. PHOTO: ST FILE

Nine out of 10 people believe that those with a mental disorder "could get better if they wanted to", a new study of 3,000 people by the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) has found. Around half also think that such problems are "a sign of personal weakness".

But researchers stress that many mental disorders have a biological basis, and such a stigmatising mindset often prevents people from coming forward to get treatment.

"They want to avoid the label of that illness and, therefore, they either do not want a diagnosis or do not want to be seen as seeking help for it," said adjunct assistant professor Mythily Subramaniam, director of IMH's research division.

The Mind Matters study on mental health literacy was started last year to find out how much Singaporeans know about five common mental disorders here. These are depression, alcohol abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and dementia.

The first three are the most common mental illnesses in people aged 18 and above, according to the Singapore Mental Health Study of 2010, while dementia affects one in 10 people aged 60 and above.

During the Mind Matters study, respondents were presented with one of five scenarios describing key characteristics of a mental illness. They were then asked to identify the illness, where someone with such an illness should seek help, and what kind of intervention would be most effective.

Their attitudes towards mental illness - such as whether or not they would befriend a mentally ill person or have such a person marry into the family - were also measured.

In general, those with lower education and income levels were less able to recognise mental disorders. This group was also more likely to see those with such disorders as "weak, not sick" or "unpredictable or dangerous".

Principal investigator Chong Siow Ann, vice-chairman of IMH's medical board (research), said that the results show a need for more awareness of mental illness, especially within this group of people.

"To a certain extent, it does explain why the treatment gaps for some of these disorders are wide as well," he said.

The treatment gap refers to the estimated number of people who have a mental disorder, but who have not sought any kind of help.

Freelance writer Nicole K was diagnosed with depression nine years ago. She went through crying spells, lost weight, had difficulty sleeping and experienced "unexplained aches and pains". A friend who was expecting a baby stopped associating with her after she was diagnosed because she did not want the child to be affected. Some relatives, too, did not understand the illness and gave her a hard time.

After medication and therapy, Nicole is now coping well and encourages others with the same problems to read up as much as they can online and see a good doctor.

"Find a doctor who is able to meet your needs," she said. "When it comes to mental illness... there are many causes and it requires a multi-factor approach."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline Mental illnesses 'not all in the mind'. Subscribe