Mental health professionals have called for barriers surrounding mental illness to be broken down.

And they said the culture of silence around mental health problems needed to end so the subject could be properly discussed and dealt with.

“No one talks about it,” Winston Rogers, clinical manager of community rehabilitation services at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute, said. “The powers that be don’t talk about it.

“Those people that are very much involved with mental illness, we do our part, but sometimes it is seen as self-serving when you get the actual people who are providing this service and they’re out there trying to beat the drum about mental illness.

“What’s going to change things, as it has with cancer and Aids, is when the consumers or the loved ones of persons with those illnesses start to come out and talk more about it and approach their politicians about resources and getting it out there in society.”

Mr Rogers was speaking after the You Are Not Alone forum hosted by the Bermuda Health Foundation two weeks ago.

While he was encouraged by the turnout, he said the stigma associated with mental illness was still so great that those with mental health problems who function well in society do not want to talk about it.

Morrisa Rogers, clinical supervisor for Allied Health at MWI, added that a big part of the problem was the belief that employers will automatically doubt their capacity or ability to work.

“For that reason they don’t want to come out and tell their story about how they function and that sort of continues the perception that the only people who have mental illness are unable to work or those who are on the streets and it really doesn’t change the landscape of what someone with mental illness looks like, which is anybody who is out there — it’s the same demographic,” she said.

Negative and sensationalised portrayals by the media, and the high likelihood of being recognised in Bermuda also make people reluctant to speak out, she said. While Bermuda does not have its own statistics on mental health, Mr Rogers said “we go by the overall statistics that one in four persons suffer with mental illness”.

But he said a lot of people still believe those with mental health problems “should be locked away at MWI”.

“There are some people who look at that building and feel that with all those windows up there, that big building must be where all the mentally ill are.

“But the mentally ill are people who are with us,” he said. “Any one of us is capable of stepping over that line.

“At any given time, just like we are one or two paycheques away from being in financial assistance, we are one or two heavy emotional events away from seeking some kind of help.”

But the stigma surrounding MWI can be so great it stops people from accessing the services, he said, and it has even put people off attending the support group.

“I sometimes feel that the taboo is so great that people won’t even take the chance of phoning.”

To make people more comfortable, Mr Rogers and Ms Rogers hold a family support group at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital on the second Wednesday every month and at MWI on the fourth.

And Mr Rogers said the forum was a sign that the stigma around mental illness was breaking down.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a big attendance at one of these community forums when it comes to mental health and mental illness.”

But he added that the “conversation has to be kept going” and he emphasised that this must come from all sectors of society.

Chris Gibbons, founder of Losing Someone to Suicide, said he was also encouraged by the turnout at the event.

“I think it reflected a growing community awareness about mental health and, more importantly, a willingness to talk openly about it — something that has historically been a challenge in a small place like Bermuda where it is still often stigmatised.”

Mr Gibbons, who founded the group after his daughter took her life, added that it showed that families and individuals are increasingly looking for advice, direction and support in coping with mental health issues.

But he also pointed out that people often do not know about the growing number of local support groups or how to find them.

“I’d like to see a central online directory of local support groups set up and made available through Government and the Mental Health Foundation website,” he said.

Mr Gibbons also reiterated that Bermuda is “dangerously lacking” when it comes to suicide prevention and awareness efforts.

“We have already had three confirmed suicides in Bermuda this year alone — possibly five — but there is no data available on the number of suicide attempts or incidences of self-harm.

“The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that for every completed suicide there are 25 attempts.

“Even if Bermuda statistics were a third of that number, it would be the tip of a very worrying iceberg.”

• For more information on the Family Support Group, call 236-3770 or e-mail family.support@bhb.bm.