MISCONCEPTIONS and ignorance have always clouded the delicate issue of mental illness. The Hospital Authority will focus on all aspects of psychiatric treatment in the coming years in an attempt to enlighten the public and remove the stigma from one of the most misunderstood of all illnesses. In a recent issue of the Hospital Authority newsletter, Dr Shum Ping-shui, consultant psychiatrist-in-charge at Kwai Chung Hospital, said that placing the emphasis on mental health would not be detrimental to other areas of health care. ''Psychiatric treatment has been identified as a specific area of need which must be addressed if Hongkong is to keep pace with modern trends in the development of such services,'' he said. One of the problems facing Dr Shum and his colleagues in this field is that mental illness has been largely misunderstood and incorrectly treated. ''Patients were generally confined or isolated under conditions which today would be considered primitive,'' he said. Diagnosis and treatment is particularly difficult as mental anxiety, illness or disturbance, can take various forms and occur with different degrees of intensity. ''Ignorance of the root causes of mental illness led to a general misconception that such problems were incurable,'' said Dr Shum. ''However, it is recognised that, given timely and proper treatment, many patients can recover and function as useful members of the community.'' Twenty years ago, Hongkong had only one specialist mental hospital at Castle Peak. There were only three psychiatric out-patient clinics and two halfway houses. Then, treatment was largely through the use of drugs and electro-convulsive therapy and therewas no department of psychiatry at the one medical school. ''Today the picture is radically different,'' said Dr Shum. ''There are more than 4,500 beds distributed between major psychiatric hospitals [Kwai Chung and Castle Peak] and five psychiatric units in general hospitals. ''There are numerous specialist out-patient and day-patient centres in the urban districts which provide comprehensive treatment, and more than 30 halfway houses throughout the territory,'' he said. Both medical schools now have psychiatric departments and there are more than 70 qualified psychiatrists working in both the private and public sectors. Since 1984, doctors and nurses have been operating a 24-hour hotline for psychiatric information and this year the authority appointed specialists to community psychiatric nursing posts. Two new major facilities are to be established at the Pamela Youde hospital in Chai Wan and the Nethersole hospital in Tai Po. ''By the year 2000, the Hospital Authority intends to achieve its provisional target of one psychiatric bed per 1,000 population,'' said Dr Shum. The system has been reorganised under the new Hospital Authority where consultancy-led, multi-disciplinary teams have been established territory-wide. A new Psychiatric Case Register which keeps patient profiles on record along with statistics derived from the Management Information System, would help the authority to plan, cost and deliver psychiatric services more equitably and effectively.