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Blog - Public Still Doesn’t Understand How Serious Mental Illnesses Can Be, Experts Warn

We may be talking about mental health more than ever before, but the public still lacks understanding in how serious mental illnesses can be.

According to new research, the overwhelming majority of people (86%) believe they should be seen by a consultant if they have cancer, but there’s much less awareness that some mental illnesses require consultant diagnosis and care.

In a survey of 2,000 people, only 59% questioned thought people with an eating disorder should be referred to a specialist, despite eating disorders being classed as severe mental illnesses by the NHS.


The survey highlighted similar findings for other severe mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and addiction.

In light of the survey results, the Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for better public education around mental illnesses so the public are equipped to access the help they need.
Under the NHS mental health conditions are split into two categories when diagnosed: Common Mental Disorders (CMDs) and Severe Mental Illnesses (SMIs).

CMDs usually comprise of different types of depression and anxiety which can cause emotional distress and interfere with daily function, but “do not usually affect insight or cognition”.

In contrast SMIs are longstanding conditions where a sufferer will experience symptoms with multiple elements, potentially leading to significant disability.

According to the researchers, GPs manage around 90% of all mental health conditions. The remaining 10% of mental health conditions are more complex, enduring illnesses which require the attention of a specialist team led by a psychiatrist.

A consultant is the most senior doctor in a given field of medicine. A consultant psychiatrist is the most senior medical doctor specialising in mental health.

Bipolar disorder is a severe mental illness experienced by up to 1.3 million people in the UK. Yet the Royal College of Psychiatrists survey found 42% of people did not know that a psychiatrist is responsible for diagnosing the condition.

Alcohol addiction is also a severe mental illness that is more deadly than some cancers, yet fewer than half (44%) of the people polled thought that someone with alcohol addiction should be referred to a consultant psychiatrist.

What’s more just 23% knew that addiction to opioids such as codeine and heroin is more deadly than cervical cancer.

The researchers said the figures show the public does not understand how severe mental illness can be and does not appreciate the level of specialist care required to get help people.

They believe the next step is to equip the public with that knowledge so they have the best chance of accessing the right healthcare when they need it.

Speaking as the Royal College of Psychiatrists launches its Choose Psychiatry recruitment campaign, President Professor Wendy Burn said: “The work done to tackle stigma has been astounding and I could not be prouder of the open culture we’re fostering about mental health. But our poll shows that people do not fully appreciate how severe mental illness can be.

“Psychiatrists are the only medically trained mental health professionals. When it comes to treating severe mental illnesses their input is irreplaceable.

“Early intervention is crucial to avoid patients reaching a crisis – but this can only be done if the skilled workforce is there to intervene.

“We need more medical students to choose psychiatry because without them, we cannot deliver the high-quality care that our patients deserve.”

Dr Kate Lovett, Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “People with a severe mental illness should expect to see a specialist consultant, just as you would for a severe physical illness. We need to raise awareness about the full spectrum of mental health to ensure everyone can get the right care at the right time.”