“MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES impose an enormous disease burden on societies across the world. Depression alone affects 350 million people globally…Despite its enormous social burden, mental disorders continue to be driven into the shadows by stigma, prejudice and fear. The issue is becoming ever more urgent in light of the forced migration and sustained conflict in many countries of the world.”
Ask anyone to name the most pressing global health issues and they’re likely to reel off a list that includes HIV, malaria, malnutrition and maybe even climate change.
All of these are real threats that carry with them dire consequences if we fail to address them. But there’s one issue that is not usually on that list, despite the grave danger it poses: mental illness.
World Mental Health Day is observed annually on October 10 by global giants including the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). Chances are, it’s not on your calendar – but it should be. According to WHO, mental illnesses account for 14 percent of the global burden of disease. And by 2030, the organization predicts, that number will rise to 20 percent. What’s more, the leading causes of disability worldwide are depression and other mental disorders, which afflict more than 450 million people.
Despite the staggering statistics, mental health remains the ugly stepchild of the global health movement; dismissed as marginal and too complex to address. As a result, most of the groups that provide psychological treatment and support for mental illnesses in low and middle income countries have not been able to attract major donors, leaving more than three-quarters of the mentally ill with no care at all.
The “treatment gap” — the gap between the number of people with disorders and the number who receive evidence-based care — is as high as 70 to 80 percent in many developing countries.
Why are we, as a global community, turning a blind eye to an issue that is so urgent?
First, there’s stigma. It’s not easy to convince people that mental illness is not a personal, societal or cultural problem, but a pressing global health problem.
Then there’s the issue of payoff. From the perspective of foreign aid groups and non-profit organizations, mental health is a thorny cause to embrace because psychological symptoms can be expensive and difficult to treat. There’s no cure-all or magic bullet, no pill we can dole out with the promise of prevention or immediate relief.
There are also cultural barriers to treatment — how do you launch a successful campaign to address depression or PTSD, for example, in a country where people who suffer from these illnesses are thought to be cursed by evil spirits?
While there has been marked progress over the years, global mental health remains largely neglected and misunderstood. But it is an issue we can’t afford to ignore. Take a moment to consider the mental health crises that are currently raging, albeit quietly, in so many corners of the world: Syrian refugee camps, Iraqi cities, Indian farming communities, Afghan villages.
We have the tools are our fingertips – effective interventions that can transform the lives of countless people suffering in silence. What are we waiting for?
Want to learn more about global mental health? Link to one of the many resources below.
The World Health Organization: The WHO’s site includes details on the organization’s comprehensive mental health action plan (2013-2020), adopted by the 66th World Health Assembly.
The World Bank: For more about the cost of mental illness worldwide, The World Bank’s site is home to staggering statistics related to disability and the global burden of disease – the foregone economic output because of mental, neurological and substance use disorders globally, is in trillions of dollars.
NIMH: Grand Challenges: The Grand Challenges in Global Mental Health Initiative was led by NIMH and the Global Alliance for Chronic Disease in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The aim of the initiative was to identify research priorities that, if addressed within the next decade, could lead to substantial improvements in the lives of people living with neuropsychiatric illnesses.
Condemned/Mental Health in Africa in Crisis: Robin Hammond is a freelance photojournalist and winner of four Amnesty International awards for Human Rights journalism. In his beautiful series CONDEMNED, Hammond captures the deplorable conditions that the mentally ill endure and the overwhelming challenge that mental health workers face with limited resources and inadequate or failed systems health care systems in which the mentally ill have the lowest priority.
The Lancet, Global Mental Health: The Lancet Series on Global Mental Health draws together leading experts from the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, UK, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and, WHO to highlight the gaps in mental-health services worldwide, and to formulate a clear call to action.
The Chains of Mental Illness in West Africa: In this New York Times story, journalist Benedict Carey writes about mental illness in parts of West Africa, where psychiatry is virtually unknown.
Don’t Underestimate the Socioeconomic Impact of Mental Illness: This piece in The Economist focuses on the impact of mental illness on people during their most productive years.
NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATIONS (working to address global mental health challenges)
The Carter Center: Under the leadership of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a long-standing champion for the rights of people with mental illnesses, the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program works to promote awareness about mental health issues, inform public policy, achieve equity for mental health care comparable to other health care, and reduce stigma and discrimination against those with mental illnesses.
Strong Minds: StrongMinds provides life-changing mental health services to impoverished African women. By adapting a proven therapeutic model, StrongMinds is the only organization scaling a cost-effective solution to the depression epidemic in Africa, presently operating in Uganda.
mhNOW: mhNOW is the first comprehensive platform to address the global mental health gap at scale. It is a challenge to the cities of the world to create and nurture collaborations that cut across formal and informal sectors and to accelerate the most innovative global solutions.
Peter C. Alderman Foundation: The Peter C. Alderman Foundation helps people to rebuild, recover and thrive. A humanitarian and social innovation agency with operations in Africa and Asia, PCAF implements programs to strengthen mental health and recovery for communities devastated by war and armed conflict. Our programs are led by locally trained clinicians, working with members of the community, for immediate and long-term survivors.