Mental health misconceptions causing 1 in 4 to delay seeking help

11 July 2018 . United Kingdom

New Bupa research looks at the impact mental health misconceptions have on the time it takes people to seek the support they need

  • 60% of UK are unable to identify key symptoms of the most common mental health conditions, yet one in four experience a mental health issue every year
  • Mental health misconceptions have caused 13 million people to delay seeking treatment
  • Bipolar is the most misunderstood mental health condition, though awareness of depression and anxiety is strong
  • Bupa wants to dispel myths around mental health conditions to improve recovery
Man looking in mirror

The majority of people in the UK struggle to identify the symptoms of common mental health conditions, which is resulting in treatment delays for millions.

The study from Bupa examined the nation’s understanding of key psychological and behavioural symptoms of six of the most prevalent mental health conditions in the UK, as well as identifying widely-held misconceptions.

The findings show that general awareness of mental health issues has improved for more than half of people (53%). But with so many experiencing a mental health issue, greater understanding of the signs and symptoms is needed, as 60% of people are currently unaware of the main traits of specific conditions.

Early diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions can improve recovery rates, but the research reveals that inaccurate assumptions have caused one in four (25%) – almost 13 million – to delay seeking support for a mental health problem, which is why medical experts at Bupa want to raise awareness of the true symptoms of mental health conditions.

Bipolar is the most misunderstood mental health condition with 86% of people unable to identify all of the most common symptoms such as feeling sad, lacking energy, and difficulty concentrating. Further symptoms include elevated mood, and hyperactivity. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are also commonly misunderstood by the majority of people, with many mistakenly believing that OCD is about ‘liking things neat and tidy’.

On the other hand, nine out of 10 people (90%) are able to identify the key symptoms of depression and half the nation (51%) is able to recognise the most common signs of anxiety such as restlessness, a sense of dread or insomnia – a positive move for the three million people who experience anxiety in the UK.

The study also highlights what shapes people’s understanding of mental health. Friends and family with a condition (49%) and documentary TV programmes (46%) are the nation’s main sources of information, while 16 per cent are influenced by celebrities’ experiences.

Commonly-held mental health misconceptions include:

  1. OCD is about ‘liking things neat and tidy’ (89%)
  2. PTSD involves being ‘violent’ (57%)
  3. Anxiety is ‘being afraid to go outside’ (54%)
  4. People with mental health conditions ‘spend more time at home’ (47%)

Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK, says: “It’s reassuring to see that there is greater general awareness of mental health issues. However it’s clear that many people would not recognise the symptoms of specific conditions. A better understanding of mental health conditions could help people to identify whether they or a loved one needs support more quickly, which can significantly improve outcomes.

“If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health it’s important to seek medical advice. To reduce the time between diagnosis and treatment we launched our Mental Health Direct Access service. It offers people access to specialist mental health support without the need for a GP referral, and I would encourage anyone with questions around mental ill-health to seek advice.”

The most misunderstood mental health conditions*

  1. Bipolar (86%)
  2. OCD (78%)
  3. PTSD (56%)

* Percentages relate to those unable to identify the three main symptoms/behaviours

Top 3 symptoms of the most common mental health conditions*

  • Anxiety: Restlessness; a sense of dread; insomnia
  • Bipolar: Feeling sad, hopeless or irritable; lacking energy; difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Depression: Continuous low mood or sadness; feeling hopeless or helpless; low self-esteem
  • OCD: Obsessive thoughts or urges; feelings of anxiety or distress; repetitive behaviours or thoughts
  • Phobias: Sweating; trembling; hot flushes or chills
  • PTSD: Flashbacks; nightmares; irritability

Fionuala Bonnar, Chief Operating Officer, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, says: “Intervening in a mental health issue early can help us get on a path to recover, or manage symptoms at the earliest possible opportunity, which has the potential to improve our lives, both socially and emotionally. Educating people to be mental health aware is the first step to encourage early intervention, but as Bupa’s research reveals, there is a deeper knowledge needed if we are to improve outcomes for those affected by mental ill health.

To drive change, MHFA England is working to train one in ten of the population in Mental Health First Aid, which is evidenced to increase knowledge of common mental health issues, and confidence in offering support on a first aid basis. Our vision is to create a society where people are skilled to be able to look after their own and other’s wellbeing, including developing a deeper understanding of the signs and symptoms of a range of mental health conditions. In doing so we will help to bridge the gap in knowledge that Bupa’s research has identified, and ensure more people are empowered to access the right help at the right time.”

*According to diagnostic criteria defined by NHS Choices. Further information on these conditions can be found at Bupa Health Information.

Notes to editor

About the research

Opinium Research surveyed 2,000 UK adults aged 18+ online between 22 and 25 May 2018 on behalf of Bupa. Results are nationally representative.

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