Why awareness matters

Quite often I hear from one of you about this column. Either a specific topic has been of particular interest, you would like more information about a certain disorder or research study, or perhaps you simply want to let me know you either agree or disagree with what I have said. Hearing from you is always interesting and a pleasure.

Every once in a while I am asked why I write this column and today I want to explain my purposes as well as why I believe that raising public awareness about mental health and research is important.

My primary goal in writing this column each week is to educate and raise awareness about current topics in mental health and research and to promote public participation in our health care system in a variety of ways. I believe this is important so that we can all be better informed as consumers of health care services – when we have an awareness of some of the current concerns or areas of research, we are better equipped to be proactive when dealing with our own personal health care.

Being aware of issues in mental health can also help us to have more empathy for people in our community who experience a mental illness. Chances are we all know at least one person who is dealing with a mental health problem and if we have even a basic understanding of what that might be like, we are more likely to show some care and concern for those around us.

In several past columns I have talked about the stigma that is often associated with mental illness. Misunderstanding and lack of basic knowledge about mental health issues is actually very common and unfortunately leads to discrimination toward those who experience mental health problems. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that a third of respondents still attributed mental illness to an emotional or personal weakness or to old age. Also, a third of respondents said they would not seek treatment for a mental disorder because of fear over what other would think of them.

As much as that finding is discouraging, the good news is that the same survey found most people do want accurate information about mental health issues – although almost half said they knew little to nothing about mental illnesses, but 84 per cent thought they could benefit from more information. This is good news because knowledge is a powerful tool and really the only way to battle the misconceptions that are so prevalent.

One surprising finding in this survey was that while almost 90 per cent of respondents believed it to be important to have a medical degree in order to diagnose and treat mental illness, there were misconceptions among many about whether psychiatrists were medical doctors – almost 40 per cent were either unsure or thought psychiatrists were not medical doctors. Medical professionals including psychiatrists and family practitioners can all help to eliminate this kind of basic misconception.

Many people in this survey said they believed the media could help to eliminate stigma by helping to raise awareness and having positive portrayals of people with mental illness.

I also feel that raising awareness and public participation in medical research is important – not only because of my work with Okanagan Clinical Trials, but because continued research into newer and more effective treatments as well as evaluation of current ones is the only way we can continue to advance in these areas. All medical treatments must be studied before they can legally be used in our country and we have a very developed and ethical system in place to ensure participants are well informed and educated during the research progress. For people experiencing many chronic medical conditions, participating in research is one more option after existing treatments may have failed. It is also a chance to help future individuals experiencing the same condition.

I encourage everyone to learn as much as possible about your own health, facts about mental health and other medical conditions, and any medical treatments you may be considering. Ask your doctor about your options and do some research on your own by speaking with patient advocacy groups, reading information online or visiting your local library. It never hurts to be proactive and to take your healthcare seriously. Considering how much effort and time we spend choosing a new vehicle or furniture for our homes, it is amazing how little time many spend learning about their own health.

 

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