GPs had the opportunity to learn more about mental health issues and the experience of stigma and discrimination in primary care direct from service users at a recent development and training conference.

The conference, which was sponsored by anti-mental health stigma campaign Time to Change, included a series of presentations and workshops emphasising the need for GPs to look after their own wellbeing to ensure they can effectively care for their patients, including those with mental health problems.

During break-out sessions, Time to Change trainers, who have themselves experienced mental health problems, delivered training that has been designed to improve GPs' knowledge, attitudes and behaviour around mental health. Nine in 10 people with a mental health problem are seen in primary care, so it is vital that they are able to receive the support they need without facing stigma or discrimination.

Three-quarters of GPs who attended the conference received the 10-minute face-to-face training. During the sessions the trainer discussed their own experiences of primary care, including stories of stigma or discrimination. The trainer and GP then worked together to agree ways they could make adjustments to their practice, such as having literature about mental health problems available for patients.

Following this, the GPs were signposted to a follow up online training tool so they can continue their learning in their own time. The tool includes ‘bitesize’ information and links to resources to make the training more practical and workable.

The training is part of a wider pilot project being run in the London Borough of Lewisham. It has been set up with funding from the Big Lottery Fund following the evaluation of an earlier pilot among primary care staff, which found that when asked whether they would be willing to work with someone who had a mental health problem, 76% agreed before the training and 92% agreed afterwards.  

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, said: “There is evidence that people are still reporting discrimination when using primary care services. At the same time, GPs also say that they don't get enough training on mental health. That is what has led to the piloting of this new bitesize training package. After building up an evidence base, we would ultimately like to see this available in GP practices across the country.”

Professor Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who hosted the conference, said: “Life is tough at the moment, workload is increasing, the complexity of what we, as GPs, are expected to do has changed beyond all recognition and we are expected to lead both in the consulting room and increasingly outside - combining the role of a clinician with that of a manager.

“Doctors have always risen to the challenge but we must find this time to care for ourselves if we are to continue to be effective carers to our patients, especially those patients with mental health problems. The Time to Change training has been designed to acknowledge the little time and resource we have available. By providing the short bursts of information it will also help us to consider mental health as well as physical health problems when caring for patients - bringing us closer to that crucial parity of esteem between the two.”

Dr David Abraham, from Morden Hill Surgery in Lewisham, welcomed the initiative. “Bringing people with experience of mental health problems to the primary care practice illuminates the discussion more than any theoretical discussion would.

“The power of the training narrative in informing us and giving us a reality check is crucial in mental health - to listen more, to understand better and to judge less, but to have the objective of empowerment is absolutely crucial.”