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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Do 'alternative' help-seeking strategies affect primary care service use? A survey of help-seeking for mental distress

Katja Rüdell12*, Kamaldeep Bhui1 and Stefan Priebe1

Author Affiliations

1 Affiliation at time of research, Centre for Psychiatry, Barts & the London School of Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, UK

2 Outcomes Research, Pfizer Ltd (IPC 160), Sandwich, Kent, CT13 9 NJ, UK

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BMC Public Health 2008, 8:207  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-207

Published: 11 June 2008



Epidemiological studies suggest that only some distressed individuals seek help from primary care and that pathways to mental health care appear to be ethnically patterned. However few research studies examine how people with common mental disorder manage their mental distress, which help-seeking strategies they employ and whether these are patterned by ethnicity? This study investigates alternative help-seeking strategies in a multi-ethnic community and examines the relationship with primary care use.


Participants were recruited from four GP practice registers and 14 community groups in East London. Of 268 participants, 117 had a common mental disorder according to a valid and structured interview schedule (CIS-R). Participants were of Bangladeshi, black Caribbean and White British ethnic background. For those with a common mental disorder, we examined self-reported help-seeking behaviour, perceived helpfulness of care givers, and associations with primary care service use.


We found that alternative help-seeking such as talking to family about distress (OR 15.83, CI 3.9–64.5, P < .001), utilising traditional healers (OR 8.79, CI 1.98–38.93, p = .004), and severity of distress (1.11, CI 1.03–1.20, p = .006) was positively associated with primary care service use for people with a common mental disorder. Ethnic background influenced the choice of help-seeking strategies, but was less important in perceptions of their helpfulness.


Primary care service use was strongly correlated with lay and community help-seeking. Alternative help-seeking was commonly employed in all ethnic groups. A large number of people believed mental distress could not be resolved or they did not know how to resolve it. The implications for health promotion and integrated care pathways are discussed.