I have always believed that the challenge of dealing with mental health problems is their invisibility. Anyone who suffers from mental illness repeatedly questions: Does it exist? Do other people also suffer the same problem? Do people believe that my mental suffering is real? Does it make me different? It is to provide answers to such complex questions, to promote the visibility of mental health, promote their acceptance and find ways to address the problems related to them that I have been working.
I learned early on that mental health problems were of serious concern to many people around the world. For example, depression, — the most common of mental illnesses — if left untreated, can lead to disastrous personal, social and even economic costs. Further, the lack of treatment and right to live with integrity as an
equal member of society for those who suffer is an infringement on their human rights. This is especially true in under developed and developing countries where resources are scarce and access to any kind of treatment is bogged down with stigma alongside financial burdens.
In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report titled “Mental Health and Development”. It focused on the civil, economic, human, and health rights of people with mental health conditions. According to the report, “the majority of development and poverty alleviation programmes do not reach persons with mental or psychosocial disabilities.” It goes on to say that between 75 percent and 85 percent of people who suffer from a variety of mental health problems do not have access to any form of mental health treatment.
But what is most crucial is the impact that such problems can have on society and on personal well-being of those who suffer. The report suggests that those with “mental and psychosocial disabilities are associated with rates of unemployment as high as 90 percent” and that they are “not provided with educational and vocational opportunities to meet their full potential”.
The lack of treatment and the stigma associated with mental illness has pushed those who suffer to the extreme margins. However, the relevance of mental health as a global issue is further established when one examines the link between chronic physical illness and mental illness, for mental illness is not an isolated occurrence.
According to WHO, four chronic illnesses—cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer and respiratory illnesses— are responsible for 60 percent of the world’s deaths. Further, The Lancet series on Global Mental Health suggests that persons with these chronic illnesses have much higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population. Major depression among persons experiencing chronic medical conditions increases the burden of their physical illness and somatic symptoms. More importantly, it increases medical costs and mortality.
The bottom line is that mental illnesses occur with chronic physical illnesses in many patients, causing significant role impairment, loss of productive hours and disability. They also worsen prognosis for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses. But the majority of factors responsible for mental illnesses — like depression among those suffering from chronic illnesses — are not being adequately addressed.
It has been a hard job for us to educate people that mental illnesses are a result of both social and medical conditions. While improving the quality of mental health services in coordination with physical health services, we also need social attention, care and support to ensure the recovery of people with mental health problems.
For this, the WHO report suggests two development paradigms: the need to improve aid effectiveness in poor countries; and the use of a human rights approach (universally) that ensures there are sufficient resources to provide quality services for people with mental health problems as well as their inclusion in development programmes.
Still our big challenge is the legitimacy of civil society voices who have been struggling for years demanding the recognition of human rights and the social condition of people with mental health problems. There is a need to create a strong social force for radical changes in the mental health area.
(With support from Bidushi Dhungel)