“Severe mental illness misunderstood” – Royal College of Psychiatrists

The recent interest in mental health has focused too much on the milder end of the spectrum and not done enough to increase public awareness of severe mental illness, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned. This increases the risk that people with severe mental illness won’t get the right care at the right time, they suggest.

The RCPsych suggests that reducing stigma and raising awareness has been vital in encouraging people to get help by making them less afraid to come forward when their mental health is deteriorating. But this has not translated into an understanding of severe mental illness, according to a new YouGov poll of 2,000 UK adults.

The research showed that while the overwhelming majority of people (86%) believe they should be seen by a consultant if they have cancer, there’s much less awareness of the kinds of severe mental illnesses that require consultant diagnosis and care.

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

Eating disorders are also serious mental illnesses, but only 59% of people questioned thought that people with eating disorder should be referred to a specialist.

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.

Despite the vital role of psychiatrists in treating mental illness, recent figures published by the RCPsych showed in the last 5 years psychiatry consultants increased by just 1.7%, while the number of consultants across the rest of the NHS increased by 20.2%.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling on medical students and foundation doctors to Choose Psychiatry to support those with severe mental illness.

The research also showed a lack of awareness about how deadly some mental illnesses are.  Just 23% knew that addiction – a form of a mental illness – to opioids such as codeine and heroin is more deadly than cervical cancer.

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.

The RCPsych says the figures shows the public do not understand how severe mental illness can be and do not appreciate the level of specialist care required to get people better. It believes 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. Only a psychiatrist can advise on the best psychiatric medications for certain conditions; only a psychiatrist can diagnose conditions such as psychosis. What can be better than making a depressed person happy or bringing a psychotic one back to reality?

“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 RCPsych 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.”

For more information, visit www.rcpsych.ac.uk/choosepsychiatry