Most individuals who have a serious, continuing mental health problem do not seek professional help.
Why not? Studies show many reasons. One is a lack of awareness of the problem - common in individuals who have a personality disorder, a psychotic disorder, anorexia or a substance disorder. Others around them notice the problem though. If these others care enough, they try to persuade the person to seek help. Family interventions for substance abusers follow this pattern.
A second reason is embarrassment and its cousin, fear of being stigmatised. Mental health problems are often viewed as a sign of character weakness. Physical problems like cancer are typically not viewed that way, although there are a few people who view any illness as a judgement by God.
I wonder whether celebrity disclosures of mental health problems help reduce the stigma. If a real prince and princess say they have been depressed and suicidal, do we think less harshly of individuals with psychological problems? I hope so. Having a mental health problem is a drag, but a person can make something good out of the experience by telling others and thereby normalising it.
A third reason is that the individual does not think treatment will help. I reject that reasoning because of the thousands of studies that show that mental health treatment tends to be moderately effective on average. Also, my experience as a therapist has provided me with personal evidence.
A fourth reason is fear of lack of confidentiality. I understand that fear, but professionals are required by law to keep client information confidential. Breach of confidentiality may happen, but the odds of it happening are about the same as the odds of a person being struck by lightning.
One more reason people do not seek professional help: they think they can handle the problem themselves. With the internet and self-help books on their side, they try to heal themselves. I salute that effort. It can work. If it does not, it is time to seek professional help.
You can see that I favour seeking professional assistance for a mental health problem. Whether you have a chronic problem with your toes, your teeth or your emotions, do something.
Persist until you have tried everything that makes any sense.
John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Psychology, University of New England.
- If you or someone you know needs help or support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636