The public stigma attached to mental health in Northern ireland is one of the biggest obstacles to helping sufferers, a major conference has heard. Ruth Sutherland, director of the charity Rethink, said popular perceptions were hampering advances in the treatment of conditions such as schizophrenia and manic depression.
She was speaking at an event in Belfast's Waterfront Hall yesterday to raise awareness about the stigma and discrimination suffered by sufferers, their families and carers.
"It is becoming increasingly obvious that while progress has been made in the diagnosis, treatment and care of mental illness public attitudes lag a long way behind these advances," she said.
"Consequently, while one in four of us will at some point in our lives require treatment for mental ill health, we may be reluctant to seek the very help we need because of the stigma and prejudice that still surrounds the subject in the public's perception."
The Rethink Stigma conference heard mental health problems cost the local economy over three million lost working days per year.
Ms Sutherland said the vast majority of people facing mental illness will make a good recovery, especially if they are diagnosed early and receive appropriate support care and treatment.
She told delegates that the outlook was also brighter for people suffering from a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia - which affects one in 100 people across the north. But she added: "We need to understand that there is an enormous human cost to the failure to deal with mental illness early.
"Individuals will suffer unnecessarily, their loved ones will experience enormous distress and the cost to the health and social services in the longer term will be considerably higher.
"I am concerned too that people suffering from severe mental illness are more likely to fall foul of the criminal justice system and to be among those in acute housing need.
All this points to one conclusion: if we are to make significant progress in Northern Ireland in dealing with mental health need then we must first challenge the prejudice, fear and ignorance about mental illness amongst all sections of our society."
Rethink will launch a major campaign in the autumn of 2006 to challenge the ignorance and negative stereotyping surrounding mental illness.