Our mentally ill suffering in silence  

Sydney Morning Herald

Eamon Duff
May 2, 2010

More than 1.6 million people in NSW are silent sufferers of undiagnosed mental health conditions,according to a report that highlights long-term dangers associated with delayed treatment.

The Wesley Mission report, Keeping Well: Mental Health Is Everyone's Business, reveals community attitudes towards mental illness remain so negative sufferers are ashamed to admit how they feel.

Consequently, they were reluctant to seek help and, over time, their illness worsened and became irreversible through repeated untreated episodes of depression or psychosis.

The study has prompted renewed calls for an overhaul of the mental health system.

Brain and Mind Research Institute executive director Ian Hickie said "concerted pressure" was needed for a co-ordinated response to deal with mental illness when it usually began –between the ages of 15 and 25.

"Seventy-five per cent of problems start in this age group but we don't typically see someone reporting mental health problems until they're around 40 and have had issues for 20 years," Professor Hickie said.

"Historically, services have focused on those who are already seriously ill. Contrast that, for example, with breast cancer where the services deal with the issue at all stages of the problem – early identification, treatment if needed and palliative care.

"Believe it or not, 30 to 40 years ago we had to educate people to the fact that cancer treatment was not a waste of time. Today, everyone accepts early intervention gives you the best possibility of long-term survival."

In January Wesley Mission surveyed 2012 people over the age of 18. It found that during their lives 77 per cent of people in NSW would experience, or be personally affected by someone who suffered from, a mental illness. More than a quarter of respondents claimed to be suffering some form of mental health problem, with depression and anxiety the most common conditions.

The research indicated a third of people who feared they were depressed did not seek treatment, and 50 per cent suffering from anxiety failed to take the key step.

Almost nine in 10 self-reported phobia sufferers failed to seek help.The main reason for people suffering in silence was social stigma.

The survey also demonstrated how deep negative attitudes continue to run, with less than half the population feeling comfortable around people suffering depression. Typical comments that highlight misconceptions are: "People who are depressed are dangerous" and "It's acceptable for someone with cancer to be unavailable at work because they are undergoing chemotherapy but not for someone with depression".

The superintendent of Wesley Mission the Reverend Dr Keith Garner said: "It's clear from the report that a great amount of social stigma still exists around mental illness and that's fed by fear and misinformation. We, as a society, need to become more open to this issue because the numbers of people affected are enormous."


53 per cent of people in NSW will experience a mental health problem.

Compared with physical illness, people with a mental health condition are more reluctant to seek treatment.

The most common mental health problem people report suffering is depression, with one in four believing they may be affected.

Three in 10 believed they have suffered some form of mental health problem during their lives for which they did not seek treatment. This translates to more than 1.6 million hidden sufferers across NSW.