Family doctors should be enlisted to help diagnose people in the early stages of mental distress so symptoms can be addressed before the need for a consultation with a psychiatrist, experts say. The authors of a three-year survey of mental health in the city have called for primary care services to be boosted to screen for at-risk patients and help ease the pressure on government psychiatric services. The results have just been submitted to the Food and Health Bureau for review. The bureau funded the HK$7 million Hong Kong Mental Morbidity Survey - the first city-wide study to examine mental health. The team interviewed a representative sample of 5,719 men and women aged 16 to 75 between 2010 and 2013. It estimated that 13.3 per cent of the population, or one in seven, suffered from anxiety, depression or other common mood disorders - a level comparable with most developed cities globally. Only 26 per cent sought professional help - mainly from psychiatrists - and few consulted general practitioners. More patients may have consulted doctors for physical conditions without recognising the underlying mood problems that affect their health, but the survey did not include such cases. "Very often, medically unexplained symptoms are related to mood disorders. Patients just go for a physical check-up and not proper treatment for their mental health," said principal investigator Professor Linda Lam Chiu-wah, who chairs Chinese University's department of psychiatry. The small proportion of people who receive treatment for common mood conditions mainly suffer from depression, anxiety or more severe conditions that impair their daily functioning, for example obsessive or panic disorders. That three quarters of patients fail to get the help they need can partially be attributed to the lack of mental health services provision in the primary care sector. According to the survey results, common mood disorders are associated with factors including being separated, lack of regular exercise, stressful life events, alcohol and substance misuse, financial difficulties, living in public housing and chronic illness. Hospital Authority statistics show that the number of people seeking treatment at public psychiatric clinics almost doubled from 111,806 in 2004 to 208,100 last year. A government psychiatrist sees an average of 15 to 20 cases in one session of three to four hours, which works out at 12 minutes with each patient. The study argues that developing a broad-based mental health service in the primary sector would encourage those struggling with mental issues to come forward. "Patients who are diagnosed at the onset of their mood disorders can be treated through various methods without resorting to medication prescription," Lam said. "They'll probably recover faster and more easily." Dr Eva Dunn, head of psychiatry at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan, said depression was treatable. "For mild depression, the patient may recover with family support, resolving the life stress, regular exercise, or changing one's lifestyle or environment."