WORKERS in the health service are stigmatising and judging people with mental health problems, experts will warn today with patients’ problems taken less seriously than physical symptoms.

In light of the concerns, Scotland’s chief nursing officer said discrimination would not be at an end until talking about mental illness becomes as easy as talking about a broken leg.

Ahead of a summit meeting with health and social care professionals in Edinburgh [yesterday, Thurs], Professor Fiona McQueen said: “Once the fear of being judged is no longer a fear, and people speak of their mental health issue as freely as their broken leg, we will have succeeded in moving to end the discrimination against people who experience mental health problems."

However events organiser See Me says the caution some people have in talking about their own mental health can sometimes be justified, with even healthcare workers adding to the stigma.

Gemma Welsh, 26, has received mixed support from the NHS, having struggled with her mental health since she was a teenager: “When I was at university I went to the doctor. In the lead up to that I had felt awful and was at my lowest, I was feeling suicidal and had isolated myself from everyone," she said. “It took a long time for me to convince myself that I needed or deserved help.

“The GP spent five minutes listening to me describing that I was suffering from depression and feeling suicidal. After this she sat back and said, ‘you’ve got clean hair, you’re wearing clean clothes, I really don’t think you are depressed.’"

The response sent her mental health "tumbling", she says. "Because I had been suicidal and I had experienced feelings like this since my early teens I thought perhaps this was just me and this would be how I always felt.

“For the GP to say I couldn’t have depression made me feel like a failure and useless for feeling the way I did. When you’re suicidal you feel nothing will change or get better. To have a doctor confirm that makes it worse.”

See Me claims mental health is not treated equally to physical health, with professionals sometimes neglecting medical health need while dealing with a patient's physical illness.

But Calum Irving, See Me director said problems were frequently interrelated: “If you have poor physical health it can impact your mental health, and if you experience a mental health problem it can impact on your physical health.

“If someone went to a doctor and said they were experiencing depression, but had an obvious physical issue this would not be ignored. However if someone is struggling with a long term physical condition, their mental health can frequently be overlooked. The result of this is people don’t feel they can open up.”

On a separate occasion Gemma was had a panic attack after a night out and was "threatened" by paramedics, who told her they would call the police unless she went with them to hospital.

She said: “I was in a really bad way and couldn’t calm down. My fiancée called NHS 24 and then an ambulance. When the ambulance got here I had calmed down a bit and said to them I didn’t want to go to hospital and didn’t think I needed to. Their reaction was to say that if I didn’t go with them to the hospital then they would call the police.

“I was really threatened and I panicked more. I wasn’t thinking rationally as I was coming out of the panic attack. I thought if they called the police I would be detained or sectioned. There was such a lack of compassion.”

Since then Gemma has found a good GP who has supported her and made sure that she has regular check-ups when she needs them. She added: “Now I have seen how good it can be if you’re treated with compassion.”

Yesterday's event brought 40 representatives from across health and social care together to discuss how to treat mental and physical health simultaneously, and meet standards for parity of treatment set out in the new Scottish Government Mental Health Strategy.

Mr Irving said tackling stigma will not only benefit patients, but also staff. He added: “We know that for health and social care professionals it can be difficult to open up about their own mental health in what are often very stressful jobs. An environment in which there is stigma isn’t good for patients, service users or staff and we want to see this change."