Mental health in primary health care: professionals’ perceptions and patients’ levels of depression, anxiety and stress

Tatiana Varela Madureira, Maria Cristina Quintas Antunes


Background: The integration of mental health in primary health care, throughout its various functional units and with effective articulation between primary health care and mental health services, has been considered an essential objective of the legislative documents produced in the last three decades in Portugal, among them the National Health Plan 2011-2016.

Goals: This study aimed to inquire health professionals’ perceptions about mental health care provided by public primary health care units, namely their perceptions about the mental health of their patients. It also intended to explore the difficulties perceived by the health professionals in their daily activity about the mental health problems of their patients and about the need of clinical psychologists’ activity in the public primary health care.

Methods: This is an observational cross-sectional study with two non-probabilistic samples: health professionals (doctors, nurses and psychologists) and patients from two public health care units. Health professionals were interviewed (individual structured face-to-face interviews) about their perceptions of needs for improving their capacity to provide mental healthcare and about patients’ mental health conditions. Patients responded (by self-administration) to the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21), providing a characterization of patients’ stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression.

Results: Health professionals in their daily practice often identify in their patients symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression (most particularly in adults),. Several issues were identified as problematic, such as: poor access of the referral system for psychiatric and clinical psychological specialized care, insufficient number of health professionals, particularly of psychologists, and lack of appropriate mental health care specialization. The results also revealed relevant levels of stress, anxiety and depression in primary health care patients (both genders), which seem to increase with age. 

Discussion: Difficulties identified by health professionals may relate to the centralisation of resources, resistance to change from human resources management, lack of consensus among the various decision groups linked to mental health and, at institutional level, insufficient and inadequate funding. These factors may contribute to a failure in early diagnosis of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. It is expected that articulation between primary health services and differentiated health services will improve, with improvement in teamwork among professionals and increase of the quality of life of users, satisfaction with work, from health professionals,  and reduction of health costs.


Primary health care; Mental health; Health professionals; Psychologists

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