"This is not a minority issue," says Lesley Warner from the Mental Health Foundation. "People need to be more aware and not gain their knowledge through lurid media headlines."
By 2020 depression is predicted to be second only to chronic heart disease in the league table of international health burdens. Already, 25% of all the drugs prescribed by the NHS are for mental health problems.
Ignorance surrounding mental health issues is particularly problematic in the workplace. Research suggests that 30% of employees suffer from mental health problems, most of which will be depression and anxiety disorders, but only 10% of UK companies have a mental health policy.
In a survey by the Mental Health Foundation 47% of people with mental health problems said they had experienced discrimination at work. This discrimination heightens the feelings of distress and isolation for the sufferer, prolonging the duration of the illness.
If people understood the different ways that mental health problems can manifest themselves they would soon realise that they affect perfectly normal people. "Many people just have one major episode of depression or schizophrenia, it is not necessarily a life-long condition," says Warner.
Unfortunately, due to the stigma attached to having one of these conditions, most sufferers keep quiet, even though keeping it a secret can make them feel worse. "I never open up about my condition with management or colleagues," says IT consultant Allan Henderson. "I will only talk about it if I trust or feel close to someone."
Henderson was first diagnosed as suffering from severe depression when he was revising for his first year university exams in maths and computer science. He suffers from clinical depression, which means he will always be susceptible, and he says it is quite common for a high-pressure incident to trigger his illness.
However, like most other sufferers, Henderson is fine most of the time, and he takes mood-stabilising drugs to control his condition. He chooses not to talk about it at work because he feels people are unlikely to understand. Of course, this opens up the possibility of colleagues misunderstanding what is going on.
"I had a spell when I stopped taking my lithium for five years and my work became terrible," he says. "It was never commented on but I would have preferred there to be more openness. This would have helped me because at the time I was just trying to survive."
Although awareness of mental health issues is greater than it was 20 years ago, Henderson believes the work environment is now a far less accepting place. "It has got harder in the IT industry," he says.
"Breadth of experience brings out kindness in people - it is not so noticeable in young people who are busy focusing on their careers. The IT industry is a young culture and people have less patience, which makes it easier to write people off."
Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that unrealistic workloads are the biggest cause of mental health problems in the workplace, with nearly 66% of respondents stating this to be the case. About the same number of people cited bad management as a key contributor.
"A lot of people leave their jobs because there is a misunderstanding about what is going on, but in many cases it could have been worked through with the employer," says Diane Sinclair, lead adviser for public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Most psychological problems - some claim 75% - are treatable.
"If someone is suffering from chronic depression, it could be an idea to have them starting work at midday, because certain types of depression are worse in the morning. This will help the employer as absence rates fall and the employee is in a better position to manage their condition," says Sinclair.
Stress is a commonly used term in relation to mental health problems, but it is often used to cover up more taboo illnesses. "People are more comfortable with this term," says Sinclair.
"They associate it with just being pressurised at work, even though the end result is the same and you are at risk of damaging yourself psychologically. People just don't associate the word stress with being mentally unstable."
Ultimately though it is good that people are talking about stress because it is the first step to opening up the issue of mental health problems. Sufferers simply want their condition to be accepted and treated in exactly the same way as any other health problem.
Most people with on-going mental health problems know how to recognise the danger signs and deal with them - it is a similar situation to the way an asthma or diabetes sufferer can act to control an imminent attack. It is the stigma attached to the psychological illness and other people's negative attitude that serve to exacerbate the condition.
The government-sponsored campaign Mind Out for Mental Health aims to address discrimination in the workplace and is trying to get more companies to adopt a mental health policy. However, it has a long way to go. Speaking from experience, Henderson says, "I don't advise people to be open about their condition because I think it would count against them."
Mental health facts
- Mental health problems include anxiety, depression, manic depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders
- 10% of people will suffer a disabling anxiety disorder at some stage in their life
- At any one time, 10% of the population is suffering from some form of depression. It is most common in people aged 25 to 44
- 5% of people have serious, or clinical, depression at any one time. By the year 2020 it has been estimated that clinical depression will be second only to chronic heart disease as an international health burden
- 1% of adults in the UK will experience manic depression at some point in their life
- 1% of the population will be diagnosed with schizophrenia at some time.
The Mental Health Foundation site has details of illnesses and treatments
Mindout For Mental Health is a campaign to combat discrimination. Its Web site features information about common conditions and has links and contact details for the major support organisations
If you suffer from a mental health problem and wish to talk to someone in confidence, call Saneline on 0845-767 8000. Lines are open from 12pm to 2pm every day.
This was first published in May 2002