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By Hayden Cooper

Updated December 23, 2011 07:31:59

A landmark mental health study has revealed disturbing complaints of doctors failing patients, who report being shunned or avoided by health professionals.

The Mental Health Council report, obtained by the ABC's 7.30, found more than one-third of those surveyed were also advised to lower their expectations in life because of their mental illness.

This applied to patients with schizophrenia, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The report also shows that almost half of mental health carers believe doctors behave differently when they discover a person's mental health history.

In any given year up to four million Australians fight a mental illness, for whom public stigma is a huge hurdle.

The new study set out to quantify the problem in a survey of 400 patients and 200 carers.

GPs cop the most complaints of poor care, followed closely by psychiatrists. However psychologists fare the best.

The report includes the traumatic personal stories of mental health consumers.

"I'm very nervous about sitting in a hallway with 'mental health' plastered against the wall in a public area," one person said.

"I've been in the emergency area of the hospital and overheard a treating doctor asking another doctor if it was a full moon," another said.

"The staff attitude towards me changes when they realise I have a mental health history - it's as if they think they can catch it off me," another patient said.

"We sat in a room with a psychiatrist telling our 18-year-old daughter she should stop expecting anything from life because she has a mental illness," said another.

Common problem

Advocates like Michael Burge believe it is all too common.

"We've been all subject to, or on the receiving end of some condescending, patronising, tokenistic, intimidating, discriminating, institutionalised attitudes," he said.

Even the nation's peak medical body admits there is a problem, with some patients not getting the care or the respect they deserve.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton is upfront about the system's failures.

"It's a small number of people and it's a voluntary survey, so you will get the extreme views but some of those views have revealed a problem that we need to respond to," he said.

"We need to recognise that stigmatisation by providers actually impairs that clinical working relationship. It impairs the outcome."

The Mental Health Council will now survey professionals to find out if more training would fix the problem.

Fear, intimidation

Brisbane woman Alex Gulash has endured psychotic episodes and depression over many years. But her lowest moment came when seeking medical help for what later turned out to be a physical illness.

"Because I had the history of mental illness it was immediately assumed that I was mentally ill and needed to be in a psychiatric unit and have psychotropic medications," she said.

"I was in a delirium, a very confused delirium. I can remember at different times asking people, 'can you tell me what's happening?'

"You have no idea what I experienced in that psychiatric unit unless you've actually been in one."

She is still not over the trauma.

"They considered me to be non-compliant, that I was refusing treatment. I had my hand, my arm bent up behind my back so far and so painfully that I screamed out loud at the top of my lungs," she said.

"I was told then [to] get up and walk because I wasn't going with them willingly, and they then marched me up the corridor, threw me on the bed, pulled down my pants and stuck a needle in my butt."

Ms Gulash hopes her experience can help patients and doctors alike, and fix the failures in the way those who need help the most are treated.

"What happens is they immediately see you within that filter. You've got a label on your forehead as being a psychiatric patient, a person with a mental illness and they see everything within that context," she said.


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