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Mental Illness: The World’s Most Neglected Health Problem?

Mental Illness: The World’s Most Neglected Health Problem?

World Mental Health Day occurred last week, on the same day as Indigenous People’s Day / Columbus Day: If you weren’t aware of this, you’re not alone. Some call World Mental Health Day the world’s most neglected health problem day. Despite public awareness campaigns, celebrities and other public figures discussing their struggles with psychiatric disorders and more societal acceptance about mental illness — and the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting that 1 in 4 people will require some kind of mental health care during their lives – a stigma remains.

It’s arguable that this stigma is even greater in countries whose populations have suffered, and are suffering, the traumas of war and life under repressive governments, as well as natural disasters like the epic flooding in Pakistan last year and the famine in Somalia. The direct and indirect costs of mental illness are staggering: An analysis by the World Economic Forum has found that, in 2010, such costs totaled $2.5 trillion.

The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet recently published a series of papers as a follow-up to six papers and editorials about mental illness it published four years ago. Researchers have found that there’s been progress in figuring out what needs to be done to help those suffering from mental illness. A survey of 87 countries found that more than half said there was more awareness about mental illness than in the past.

But little progress in actually helping people has been made, in no small part because of a lack of funding linked to the continuing stigma about mental illness:

For example, an analysis of programs that address poverty — a fellow traveler with mental illness — show that just giving people money, in the form of microloans or cash, often doesn’t help. The study showed more consistent improvement with interventions such as individual or group talk therapy, or psychiatric drugs.

An analysis of psychiatric aid offered to victims of traumatic situations such as war or natural disaster found that at least for adults, psychotherapy and setting up social supports like education and group discussions helps. But the authors of the report say funders often lose interest after the initial crisis passes.

That’s a common refrain. Spend any time talking to folks who work with mentally ill people in poor countries, and they’ll tell you that they consider their programs seriously underfunded, in no small part because of stigma. “Many people don’t want to be associated with mental illness,” says Julius Kayiira, who runs Mental Health Uganda. And others “think there’s no hope,” he adds.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that mental illness and poverty “interact in a negative cycle” in low-income and middle-income countries. Even more, those with mental and psychosocial disabilities face violations of their human rights according to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a leader of the global health movement, identifies what I think is a key point, that many still do not consider mental illnesses to be real illnesses. For instance, in September, the UN sponsored a major conference on non-communicable diseases – cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases, diabetes and cancer — but mental illnesses were barely mentioned.

Noting that “there is no health without mental health,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on the world to allocate more resources for mental illness.  How can we send the message that we must prioritize mental illness; that, just like heart disease or cancer, mental illnesses can causes untold pain and suffering and even death?

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Photo of Nekbakhat, aged 50, who had to flee her home with her husband and five children in the middle of the night when the flood came in August 2010 in Pakistan, by DFID - UK Department for International Development

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11:03PM PDT on Jun 1, 2013

Sadly, here in the UK, it has gone the other way.Every negative emotion is deemed as "mental illness". I work as an assessor & see so many people who believe that they are "Bi-Polar" because they are feeling "down" some days, or "depressed" because they have lost someone or broken a relationship etc... Many People want a "quick fix" & believe a pill or the therapist will make it all go away. Sadly, this leads to many geniune mentally ill people being ignored & neglected because they suffer in silence.

7:57AM PST on Feb 17, 2013

Ignorance of mental health is seen from all angles. I most recently thought about it following the beginning of the current anti-gun wave and the discussions ablout what folks should be disallowed purchase and use of guns. In Florida, we've had the Trayvon Martin killing followed by the Governor's task force deciding that our "Stand Your Ground" law is just fine. Not long after, a man was using that law to defend his killing two young men in a car because they were playing the music too loud. (Not kidding!) Not long after, our local paper in Daytona Beach reported that FL is among the lowest on the state list for mental health services. On the flip side, such as on this site, there's the view that medicines for mental illness are bogus. That's a different side of the issue. I think back to talks with my Dad about chemistry in the late 60s. For me, everything 'chemical' was bad and untoward. The fact is, everything is made up of chemicals. We take medicine (chemicals) for physical ills and we take medicine (chemicals) for mental ills. There is a difference in the brain chemistry of one with mental illness. Surely there are other components, like a person with a physical illness who should add, perhaps, exercise and changes in diet. We have a lot to learn, as always.

3:36PM PST on Nov 27, 2012

"The spurious (not true) basis for claims that the vast majority of emotional suffering is based in chemical imbalances and "broken brains" is only one of many reasons for protest in both the United States and many other countries" Dr. Paula Caplan, Psychologist

"(Regarding psychiatrists)...They're not helping people with drugs. And they're not looking out for harming people. They're ignoring the harm that's coming from all of these drugs" Dr. Norman Shealy, M.D., Neurosurgeon

"Psychiatric medications are being so over-prescribed for such excessive periods of time that in my professional opinion, it is no exaggeration to say that curtailing the use of these drugs would greatly alleviate a worldwide epidemic of adverse drug effects, including chronic disability and injury to the brain" Dr. Peter Breggin, Psychiatrist

"The American Psychiatric Association (from which I resigned in protest, some time ago) is at it again—MAKING UP, then retracting, new diagnoses that their committees generate and debate" Dr. Keith Ablow, Psychiatrist

1:50PM PDT on Oct 23, 2012


The so called "mental illness" is a creation of your society. This is not something that really be part of human being.
If you would like to have a nation of slaves, let's convice them that they have mental illnesses. Give them some "medical drugs", not so different from "streets drugs", and continue like this.

To stop freedom of thought, this is a perfect strategy. "You have a mental illness".

This is sort of "mind control".

And you could look at the results. Violence, no tolerance, racism, poor education, suicides, "strange" illnesses, no enthousiasm about life, no goals to reach, poor quality of life...

This is like the decay of civilization... Some sort of oblivion of what are the value of our culture.

The solution is to have dreams, goals and to reach them. Not to concentrate on such idea like "mental illness"... The answer is Joy of Creating Life, Happiness and Future.

12:44PM PDT on Oct 24, 2011

Healthcare policies cover everything EXCEPT menatl health, and when they do, it covers very little.

10:03AM PDT on Oct 21, 2011

Tusa Alexis A. That's just crazy...

6:19AM PDT on Oct 20, 2011

what you call mental illness, i call normal, have a great day, seeya:)

6:17AM PDT on Oct 20, 2011

My cousin who died of leukaemia in October 2010 developed this form of cancer as a DIRECT RESULT of the many very "invasive" and strong psychiatric drugs she was given for over 30 years in order to "manage" the schizophrenia and paranoia she had suffered from since 1979.

This is not my opinion; this is what her brother was told by the consultant in charge when they had examined her blood and tissue samples. I didn't understand the whole explanation, but apparently they are now able to determine what has caused the different forms of leukaemia.

In other words, she was given a great deal of strong psychiatric drugs over three decades, and the result was that she developed leukaemia, of which she died. Her immune system was completely destroyed, thanks to all the drugs she been prescribed and taken over the years.

6:14AM PDT on Oct 20, 2011

I have read many of the comments, each and every one has a valid point particular to their circumstance, experience or knowledge of mental health. The complexity of mental health is huge. It incorporates physical, mental and yes spiritual dimensions. It cannot be separated either from the outside parameters of a persons environment either. One thing is absolutely true, the current regime of psychiatry and medication is by no means the answer to mental health, and pouring funding endlessly into this avenue of pursuit is money down the drainpipe. endless studies sponsored by pharmaceutical companies to promote their products. And the poor client as the professional people call us is placed on a viscous cycle of medication, hospitalistion, so on and hence forth, round and round verbatim. I have been on this merry go round, had my rights violated, listened to the so called professionals for 10 years, until the day I said enough is enough, I am not sick, I am just different to everyone else, and I am happy. But I had to leave my Job, my friends or so called left long before that, and while i am physically alone, Jesus talks to me everyday, and he sent an angel called Emily to be my companion so i never get lonely, I have seen things the scientific world mocks , heard voices and singing from inside me and all around me, I have a mental illness according to the professionals, in fact they called me a higher performing person with a mental illness, and even called crazy by a ps

6:09PM PDT on Oct 19, 2011

Mental illness is very much overlooked and often times trivialized and rationalized as people just being quirky or neurotic, when in fact many people really are suffering with mental illness and are unable to get the help they need. Not to mention all the negative stereotypes and stigmas placed on people with mental health issues. It's not right for anybody to have to suffer needlessly from any ailment, affliction, disease or disorder. Thanks Kristina.

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