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Professional Help-Seeking

Exploring Professional Help-Seeking for Mental Disorders (2015)

H. Savage, J. Murray, S. Hatch, M. Hotopf, S. Evans-Lacko and J. Brown



Common mental disorders are widespread but the majority of people with mental disorders do not receive treatment.This suggests there is a large unmet public health need despite there being evidence-based interventions available to improve the lives of people with mental disorders.

Previous research has described various explanations as to why people do not seek professional help. Some people have a low perceived need for treatment. Another possible explanation for low rates of help-seeking is that people do not recognize the symptoms of mental disorder and do not know about the most effective treatments. Stigma regarding mental health problems can also influence help-seeking. In addition, self-stigma, or the turning of negative attitudes about mental disorders toward oneself, can also lead to reluctance to seek professional help

Understanding the reasons for low rates of treatment for mental disorders can benefit from both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The use of qualitative approaches enables the identification of novel findings that are not already present in existing literature and can help to reveal the complexity of why people do not seek help.

This study contributes to the current literature by investigating attitudes toward help-seeking in a community, as opposed to a clinical sample of people with mental disorders, and by focusing specifically on individuals who have not sought professional help. By using qualitative research methods, we sought to provide participants with an opportunity to introduce original explanations that would be harder to identify in the context of structured interviews.

How was the study conducted?

We carried out semi-structured interviews with 24 participants who had experienced symptoms of mental disorders for which they had not sought professional help in the past 12 months. 

We recruited participants from a population who had completed the South East London Community Health Survey (SELCoH), a community survey of psychiatric and physical morbidity including randomly selected households in the South London Boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth (n = 1,698).

What did we find?

Participants’ reasons for not seeking professional help included perceiving their problems as normal or unsuitable for professional help, negative expectations of professional help, believing informal strategies were sufficient, fearing being stigmatized for having a mental disorder and help-seeking, and self-perceptions of being strong and/or self-reliant. A small number (n = 4) had resolved their problems. Participants with unresolved mental disorders (n = 20) had more chronic stressors, particularly about finances and family relationships, and greater concerns about professional help and stigma than other participants.


The findings of this study demonstrate that people are not “help-seekers” or “non-help-seekers”: Many participants described previous treatment episodes, were considering professional help, and/or were help-seeking for physical health problems. 


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