GPs and Mental Health: the campaign for increased training

In any given year, one in four people experience a mental health problem, and for 81% their first contact with mental health services is through their GP. However, knowing how to explain how you’re feeling to someone who isn’t a trained psychologist can be incredibly difficult. Last year, the mental health charity Mind launched their ‘Find The Words‘ campaign, aiming to not only help people talk to their GP about mental health, but also to provide GPs, nurses and pharmacists with the knowledge and confidence needed to deliver quality mental health support.

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The launch of this campaign followed the news that, although around one third of all GP appointments are mental health related, on average less than half of GPs undertake training in a mental health setting. In some parts of the country, this figure was as low as 31%. Mind called for the Government to improve mental health training for GPs, so that in the future they are better equipped to care for their patients. They even launched a petition calling on the Secretary of State for Health to improve mental health training for trainee GPs and practice nurses, which was signed by over 16,000 people before closing.

The large number of people jumping to support this campaign highlights the importance of improving GPs’ knowledge and understanding of mental health. Building a rapport and feeling supported can greatly influence how comfortable a patient feels about expressing themselves and how much they disclose. Despite this, 30-50% of patients feel discriminated against by their GP, or feel that they are not well understood. For many, this perceived stigma and ignorance deters them from visiting their doctor.

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Those who do seek help from their GP can also face problems. Many rely on their GP to help them with symptoms that even they themselves do not understand. It is particularly important for GPs to have a clear knowledge of the symptoms of mental health problems, as 46% of people suffering also have long-term physical conditions. Without specific training on what signs to look out for, it is easy for these physical symptoms to mask a serious mental health issue. It is estimated that mental illness is misdiagnosed at the first GP visit for a third of patients.

“Though GPs are not expected to be able to counsel patients themselves, they should be able to refer them to those that can.”

However, improving GPs’ abilities to correctly diagnose patients is not the only aspect of mental health training that needs to be addressed. It is essential that GPs are provided with the knowledge and confidence to refer patients for expert assessment and treatment. In 2005, of all those suffering with a mental illness, only 3% had seen a psychiatrist, and 2% a psychologist, within the year. As a result, most patients only received treatment in the form of medication prescribed by their GP. Their biggest criticism of the care that they received was the lack of psychological therapy being offered. Though GPs are not expected to be able to counsel patients themselves, they should be able to refer them to those that can.

Mind’s campaign was not only launched to help those seeking help, but also to provide a voice for the primary care professionals who treat them. Almost 90% of primary care staff experience workplace stress and, like their patients, they too need to be supported. Given that 16% of GPs report experiencing an unmanageable amount of workplace stress, increasing mental health training seems to be as important to helping them as it is to their patients.

“Mind’s campaign was not only launched to help those seeking help, but also to provide a voice for the primary care professionals who treat them.”

With such high rates of patients seeking mental health support, and so many GPs struggling to provide suitable care, it is clear that a change is needed in the primary care system. Mind‘s ‘Find The Words’ campaign cannot accomplish this change alone, but raising awareness of these issues is the vital first step in helping to improve the experience for both patients and primary care staff.

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Mind’s full ‘Better Equipped, Better Care’ report on improving mental health training for GPs and practice nurses can be downloaded here.

Author aliciapeel

An honorary research assistant working in the EDITlab, in collaboration with the Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) BioResource. My main focus is in the field of therapygenetics. I am currently working on the BioPoRT study, investigating the role on biomarkers, as well as clinical and demographic factors, in predicting response to psychological therapy for anxiety and depression.

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