For many people mental illnesses are shrouded in prejudice, fear as well as mystery. Discussing such illnesses in social circles is often taboo and many would prefer not to acknowledge that either they or those close to them may be suffering from mental illnesses.

Mental Health Commissioner John Cachia lifted the lid on this delicate subject of mental illnesses and how people deal with them when he announced the results of the Health Literacy Survey 2014. The survey “gauges how much people were aware of information services regarding healthcare, disease prevention, and health promotion”. It concludes that while Malta has a “sufficient level of overall health literacy”, the Maltese “lack knowledge on mental health”. Dr Cachia understandably says this is worrying.

According to the World Health Organisation, health literacy is the degree to which people are able to access, understand, appraise and communicate information to engage with the demand of different health contexts in order to promote and maintain good health across the life course.

According to some medical experts, the lifetime risk of developing any mental disorder is nearly 50 per cent. This means that during a lifetime almost everybody would have direct contact with an affected person. Recognition of mental disorders is essential because it influences a person’s attitude and behaviour towards those affected.

Yet, in most countries, including Malta, access to mental health services is significantly lacking relative to physical health. Many argue that general practitioners serving at primary care level often diagnose patients that need psychiatric care but face a dilemma on what to do because of insufficient mental health support in the public health system.

Other people simply lack mental health literacy and do not even get to the stage where they acknowledge that they need help. Anosognosia – a condition where a person who has an illness or disability but is not aware of the condition or may deny its existence – is often acknowledged as the most devastating symptom of mental illness. Thus, the stigma associated with mental illnesses is not the only reason why such illnesses are often under-diagnosed.

The spectrum of mental illnesses is very broad and so is the level of severity in those suffering from such illnesses.

Depression, anxiety and different types of personality disorders greatly affect the quality of life of many patients and those close to them. Mental illnesses in the workplace are a major concern and many business leaders are arguing that part of management training in universities should be about identifying such illnesses in employees and ways of assisting them to get help. Most people suffering from mental illness can improve if they manage to get help in time. Some voluntary organisations, like the Richmond Foundation, have agreements with employers to provide support to workers who feel they need help in a most confidential way.

Still, more needs to be done to improve mental health literacy.

The time is ripe for the introduction of national standards that seek to address the prevention of workplace mental injury in much the same way as existing standards to prevent physical injury. The government must also consider dedicating more funds to advise the public of the prevalence of mental health issues and the success rates for those who seek help.

The World Health Organisation estimates that in 2020 major depression will become the second biggest cause of disease burden in most countries. A media campaign spearheaded by celebrities who struggled with mental illnesses can improve mental health literacy.