[From Examiner >] The stigma attached to poor mental health leads to one in five people delaying seeking treatment for a full year, according to research carried out by St Patrick’s University Hospital (SPUH).

Moreover, this stigma is costing lives, said Paul Gilligan, CEO of the country’s largest independent mental health services provider.

Speaking at the launch yesterday of the SPUH annual report 2011, Mr Gilligan described the stigma surrounding mental health as “often subtle”, “extremely damaging”, and “deeply engrained in Irish society”.

“In fact the research findings probably underestimate the level of stigma given that many who respond to such surveys do not want to admit to holding negative views.

“As a result, people are extremely reluctant to discuss their mental health problems and they feel they are letting themselves and their family down if they seek help. Many in desperation and despair do not seek help but take their own lives. Stigma costs lives.”

Prof Jim Lucey, medical director at SPUH, said that while mental health had received a lot of attention, tackling the stigma remained the greatest challenge. To address this, SPUH is running an education programme involving 20 schools where transition year students are invited to spend a week observing what takes place at Willow Grove, an inpatient facility for young people who are experiencing mental health difficulties.

“After a week, they have a good insight into the reality of mental health and the positivity of recovery. It challenges any prejudices and it shows that what they may have thought would be frightening is in fact very welcoming,” Prof Lucey said. At the end of the week, the students are encouraged to bring the message back to their peers. “As a result, we are getting the whole mental health debate going in schools.”

Prof Lucey said there was a need to ensure mental health awareness became a core part of the school curriculum, and that work needed to be done to build people’s confidence in the mental health services. Currently, just three of the country’s 61 facilities providing in-patient care to mental health patients are fully compliant with the requirements of mental health legislation. They include SPUH, Willow Grove, and St Edmundsbury Hospital in Lucan.

“We all grew up with the ‘asylum history’, the horrible history of mental health care. People need to be able to access a high quality service, otherwise the stigma continues and the fear that you will end up in an awful place,” said Prof Lucey.

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