The Scottish government has published its latest research report into Attitudes to Mental Health in Scotland – In many ways it makes for discouraging reading.

The report follows on from similar studies conducted in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008 which allows comparisons to be made over time. The overall conclusion of this report is that little has changed over the last ten years despite the increasing profile being given to the issue in the press (both generally and with the coverage given to high profile sufferers who have spoken out about their difficulties) and by health professionals.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Two thirds of people know someone with a mental health condition
  • The number knowing sufferers of depression, anxiety and dementia has increased significantly (by up to 10%) since 2008
  • Between a quarter and a third of respondents reported personal experiences of mental health problems
  • The most common problem reported was depression followed by panic attacks and anxiety
  • Women were more likely to report problems than men, those over 55 were less likely than younger people to do so and those in the lowest income group were far more likely to report problems than those in the highest income group – one of the risk factors for many conditions is poverty/housing problems
  • 85% of sufferers had told someone but only 20% told someone at work
  • Over one third of sufferers reported stigma as a result of their problems, up quite considerably from 2008
  • Only one third of people (down from 50% in 2002) thought the majority of people with mental health problems recover although the proportion was much higher among those who had had their own experience
  • Nearly half of respondents said that if they were suffering from a mental health problem they would not want anyone else to know about it, indicating that fear of stigma remains a major issue
  • Worryingly, 19% of people thought those suffering from mental health problems were dangerous and 28% thought the public should be better protected from them. This is in stark contrast to research into the threat actually posed by sufferers which tends to suggest they are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence and the biggest risk they pose is to themselves, not others. This suggests an ongoing lack of understanding of the issue which breeds fear and of course feeds the stigma
  • That fear is shown by the high number of people who would not want to associate with sufferers of different kinds of condition

For those working to break down stigma, the research therefore underlines just how much work remains to be done. It is human nature to fear and to avoid what we do not know – it is a basic survival instinct which informs prejudice in many areas. The starting point has got to be getting people better informed about the issue. That way it becomes something they know about and do not need to fear.

For employers, the message is also very clear – if 20% of the adult population is suffering from a mental health condition at any one time as other research suggests, this report suggests only 1 in 5 of them will inform their employer with a huge number therefore suffering in silence with considerable resulting risks to their recovery prospects, their general health and (potentially at least) to their employer. This is why employers need to take the lead on getting the message out there and ensuring they have people in key positions throughout the organisation who can identify and help those suffering. We do it without question with physical first aid – we need to do the same for mental first aid.