Young and Vulnerable: The biggest tragedy regarding youth mental illness is collective inaction

This year, United Nations International Youth Day (IYD), on August 12, has been designated to celebrate the importance of youth mental health with the slogan ‘Mental Health Matters’. This is an opportunity, particularly for low and middle-income countries, to highlight a vitally important—but utterly neglected—aspect of youth life. The neglect has occurred on many levels by both state and society. In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rightly highlighted the global urgency to address the stigma and discrimination of youth with mental health conditions.

For the majority of youth who suffer from mental illness, they are forced to live a life of rejection from friends, society and relatives. They are denied the status of ‘citizen’, social membership and basic human needs, robbing them of a dignified life. Around the world, mental illnesses play a significantly negative role in the development of hundreds of millions of youth and their social and economic inclusion and empowerment. In poor countries like Nepal, the young population with mental illness is in a particularly vulnerable position because of the lack of a public health approach in dealing with mental illness, the absence of basic support for their recovery from the state and the deeply entrenched stigma of their illness.

More at risk

Coinciding with the IYD 2014, the United Nations Division for Social Policy and Development, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs has published an insightful report, ‘Social Inclusion of Youth with Mental Health Conditions,’ targeting global actors involved in the field of youth empowerment. I would recommend that youth activists and development workers in Nepal and abroad read this report seriously.

While the young years of life are usually considered to be the most physically active, healthy and energetic of one’s life, this phase is also one when people are most susceptible to mental health problems. However, in many low and middle-income settings, the latter risk is entirely ignored. I do hope that the exposure the issue is getting this year will be instrumental in changing the outlook of mental health, particularly of youth mental health, across the globe.

Nearly one fifth of the global population is comprised of youth aged 14 to 24 years. Almost 90 percent of these live in low and middle-income countries. In a study carried out by Professor Vikram Patel and his team, it is estimated that approximately 20 percent of youth experience a mental health condition each year around the world. Because the youth years are a phase of emotional transition and a time to nurture and pursue childhood dreams, the pressure to study well, find jobs and opportunities is also high.

Drug use, emotional and learning difficulties and disappointment are common. In countries like Nepal, socio-economic disparities and practices of early marriage and strenuous labour can make the situation worse, leaving young people more at risk of experiencing mental health problems than anyone else. Many studies suggest that over 70 percent of mental disorders start before the age of 16. One in nine children attempt suicide before high school graduation and 40 percent of those are in grade school.This is clear evidence that mental health services must be developed to target young age groups.

Educating and collective action

OPRF School Planting, 2013

The prevention and promotion of mental health issues is the way to deal with the growth in mental health problems amongst the youth. Integrating mental health issues into school education is the most effective approach to prevent and promote mental well-being. With an ambition to institutionalise mental health education at the school level and teach hope from an early age, US-based entrepreneur Kathryn Goetzke and her team have just started a pioneering programme, Schools for Hope. This team strongly believes that we can teach our kids how to find pathways to hope, no matter what they experience and that ultimately, we can prevent suicide in youth and adulthood. If this programme is successful, it will be a revolutionary step forward in promoting and institutionalising emotional health and mental well-being.

The biggest tragedy regarding mental illness is collective inaction, which has perpetuated tremendous fear, uncertainty, helplessness, segregation, and hopelessness in the lives of those who suffer. Rather than the illness itself, a fear of social rejection and segregation leads almost a million people to commit suicide every year, with the majority of them young people. By promoting greater social inclusion and empowerment of youth living with mental illness in society, we can change this reality.

It is also vitally important to spread the message that effective services (both social and clinical) exist to manage all kinds of mental health problems. We need to build capacity and a knowledge base to address them. Now, we have to start demanding equitable investment for the mental well-being of the population by asking that the state make holistic mental health services available and accessible for all.

 A new article written by Jagannath Lamichhane

Lamichhane is global coordinator of the Movement for Global Mental Health

Depression and anxiety are linked to happiness and there’s plenty that can be done from a young age

In the last blog, I talked about the World Happiness Report 2013 and began to explore the links between mental health and happiness. I want to explore this in further detail here, to examine the issues which effect happiness in an individual’s life and the implications of positive mental health on these indicators. As I mentioned in the earlier post, and as the Happiness Report 2013 clarifies, mental illness is the “single biggest determinant of misery.” While the prevalence of the problems varies between countries, at any given time, around 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from some kind of mental illness. Among all the mental illnesses, depression and anxiety are most common—accounting for about a fifth of all disability globally. Naturally, this has an incredible effect on the output of individuals, societies, countries and globally! And as we’ve heard so many times before, people are not receiving treatment for these illnesses for which cost-effective treatments exist—not even in the richest of countries!

 

For depression and anxiety disorders, evidence-based treatments can have low or zero net cost, according to not only the latest Happiness Report, but a host of professionals working in the field. They can and should be made far more universally available. However, these are all post-illness measures and the majority of interventions have focused too heavily on tackling the issues surrounding mental ill health at a later stage in life, when illnesses have been brewing and developing for years.

 

But in order to successfully make the case for childhood intervention, a paradigm shift is required which would look to establish mental health as intrinsically linked to personal happiness and not just a medical illness. That is what the World Happiness Report seeks to do precisely, by pointing out that “schools and workplaces need to be much more mental health-conscious” and “directed to the improvement of happiness” in order to prevent mental illness and promote mental health.

Ifred blog photo

 

The importance of good mental health to individual well-being can be demonstrated, in fact, by reference to values, according to the World Happiness Report 2013, which sit “at the very heart of the human condition.” Here, the Report, for example, says that if the ultimate goal in life and the truest measure of well-being is happiness, it’s “hard if not impossible” to flourish and feel fulfilled in life when individuals are beset by health problems such as depression and anxiety. This couldn’t be truer. Further, an individual’s self-identity and ability to flourish are often influenced by their social surrounding, relationships and engagement with those around them, but with mental illness, these become increasing difficult to maintain and manage. Importantly, the other issue identified by the report is that once an individual loses the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and behavior, then happiness becomes a distant dream to them.

 

The focus then should be at promoting happiness in all spheres of life, at home, school, work, and, in effect, promote mental health too. This would mean fostering an environment, for example, where young people and young professionals would not be personally, professionally or socially pushed to be isolated, over-stressed, keep feelings bottled up and be accepted and nurtured to grow and develop on their strengths and manage their weaknesses.

 

Further, there is plenty of scientific evidence that links happiness (thus equating to the absence of mental illness) to healthy lifestyles, including getting plenty of exercise which releases endorphins – aka happy hormones – and eating right. Personally, meditation and yoga I believe are also great techniques which can be developed as a lifestyle to promote well-being overall. Teaching these kinds of lifestyle choices from a young age can also prove to be extremely fruitful in the long run to fight unhappiness and mental illness simultaneously. After all, while it’s necessary to further develop medical and social interventions – as is most popular today – to address mental illness, nipping the bud at the root would undoubtedly be the most effective approach!

 

Having said all of this, I am thrilled to say that iFred is already well on its way to adopting this model of intervention, through all of its work. From developing a positive image of depression globally, to educating children about the value of hope in schools, iFred’s work deserves not only praise on this account, but some serious up-scaling through global partnerships!.

 

A new article written by:

Jagannath Lamichhane

 

The Path to Happiness is Sound Mental Health

In July 2011 the UN General Assembly passed a historic resolution:  It invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. Bhutan topped the first report published in 2012 as the ‘happiest’ country, in a shocking revelation. According to the report, “the word ‘happiness’ is not used lightly. Happiness is an aspiration of every human being, and can also be a measure of social progress.” It further goes on to take the example of the US to explain: “America’s founding fathers declared the inalienable right to pursue happiness. Yet are Americans, or citizens of other countries, happy? If they are not, what if anything can be done about it?”

Undoubtedly, this “happiness” discourse is intrinsically linked to the mental health of individuals, communities and countries. One has to wonder: Why are Mexico and Costa Rica “happier” than the US, even in the event of massive income, development and freedom deficits in the former countries? This then leads us to the idea that perhaps — just perhaps — happiness cannot be measured by wealth or external development, but rather by other factors like peace of mind, social cohesion, satisfaction, inclusion in the community and personal integrity: all factors associated with good mental health. Unsurprisingly, the 2013 World Happiness Report reveals in chapter three that mental illness is, in fact, the “single most important cause of unhappiness, but it is largely ignored by policy makers”.

The 2013 report shows that mental health is the “single most important determinant of individual happiness” (in every case where this has been studied). About 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from clinical depression or crippling anxiety disorders going by UN data.  And accordingly, that makes depression and anxiety the biggest causes of disability and absenteeism, with huge costs in terms of misery and economic waste. Most cases of depression and anxiety are easily treatable—medically and socially.

Cost-effective treatments exist as I have discussed in previous blogs, but even in advancedcountries, only a third of those who need it are in treatment according to the report. The incredibly frustrating part is that the available treatments ranging from psychotherapy (CBT, Mindfulness) to medication produce recovery rates of 50% or more, which means that effectively, fifty percent of the world’s ‘unhappy’ people could be happier and be living far more fulfilling lives!

That means that there are indeed objective benefits of subjective well-being. The Happiness Report 2013 shows a broad range of evidence showing that people who are emotionally happier, who have more satisfying lives, and who live in happier communities, are more likely both now and later to be healthy, productive, and socially connected. These benefits in turn flow more broadly to their families, workplaces, and communities, to the advantage of all.

But it seems not enough that human rights require that treatment should be as available for mental illness as it is for physical illness. The policy priority in much of the world for mental health, especially in developing countries, is incredibly low. Even politicians are marked by the terror of the stigma associated with mental illness such that mental illness is rarely expressed or internalized as a leading cause for the misery of any state’s population.

What I found particularly useful in the 2013 World Happiness Report are the solutions suggested to overcome these barriers to sound mental health and thus a happier global population. It suggests two main strategies: to provide better healthcare and social support for adults who are mentally ill. But a second is to intervene earlier — since half of adults who are mentally ill experienced the onset of their mental health problems by the age of 15, say the writers of the report. This, I suppose, would mean starting to talk about mental health as a real and substantial issue from a young age within schools and local communities. The research done on the mental health variable with regards to happiness shows the contribution of a child’s development to his/her resulting life satisfaction as a child. Basically, the emotional development of children is crucial to determining their mental health later in life. According to the research, “if you are interested in well-being, intellectual development needs to be balanced by much more interest in emotional and social development”.

Having read this report, I am even more enthused about the work that iFred is doing through the Schools for Hope program! While the notion of providing better mental health services at the adult stage will forever be crucial to the well-being of society, measures to incorporate the ideas of hope into school curriculums could well go a long way in preventing common mental disorders like depression and anxiety in the first place by nipping the bud at the root. And that is exactly what the World Happiness Report 2013 has clarified – that preventative care is possible, through education and services for young people!

A new article written by:

Jagannath Lamichhane

(with support from Bidushi Dhungel)

#happiness #teachhope #mentalhealth #shinelight

The Concept of “Mental (In)capacity” can never be a basis to deprive people with psychosocial disabilities and mental health problems of “legal capacity”

by Jagannath Lamichhane

Last week, I came across a Facebook post of a dear friend, which moved me to tears. Gabor Gombos, a former United Nations member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — and a man whom I always looked at with high esteem as a source of knowledge and inspiration for the millions of people in the mental health and psychosocial disability rights movement across the world — was in a state of utter despair.

Gabor had written on his wall page: “Doctors say there is no hope for Kati, my only wife in my life, my co-worker, the mother of our child, who survived three days. We jointly did what I became famous of. We had hard times recently as well. Now she is slowly dying. I am dying too. Life is meaningless and impossible”.

His message affected me deeply and I felt depressed the entire day. I never thought I’d have to read such words of despair coming from a man of such strength and accomplishment in the field. Gabor had even gone as far as to indicate he was most inclined to hang himself. In response, there were hundreds of comments on his Facebook page praying for the good health of his wife and his own strength. I also wrote a few words: “My prayers Gabor, stay strong’.

A few days passed through which time and again I would think of Gabor and the loss to the movement and myself were he to really take his own life. I was quite worried actually.

A couple of days later, I heard about the United Nations Committee on the CRPD General Comment on article 12 ie legal equality (legal capacity) of people with disabilities, including psychosocial and mental health problems.  Although article 12 of the disability convention was already a revolutionary article giving equal legal recognition of people with disabilities — including mental health problems and psychosocial disabilities — in absence of the United Nations CRPD Committee’s authoritative interpretation of the article, its interpretation remained controversial since the adoption of the CRPD in 2006.

However, this general comment brought an end to the ongoing controversy, endorsing equal rights and equal recognition of people with disabilities before the law. The general comment has explicitly interpreted that legal discrimination on the basis of disability or in the name of mental (in)capacity is clearly a violation of human rights and against international human rights principles. The general comment has highlighted that there has been a general failure to understand that the human rights-based model of disability implies a shift from the substitute decision-making paradigm to one that is based on supported decision-making.

The general comment discards the concept of “mental capacity” as a social and political construct lacking an objective, scientific and naturally occurring phenomenon. The CRPD Committee explicitly recommends the state parties to guarantee civil and political rights for people with disabilities, even if they might require support in decision-making. While developing a policy framework in the country level, the Committee clearly recommends that support in decision-making must not be used as a justification for limiting other fundamental rights of persons with disabilities, especially the right to vote, the right to marry (or establish a civil partnership) and found a family, reproductive rights, parental rights, medical treatment and the right to liberty.

Most importantly, the interpretation heralds an end to the era of forced psychiatry, a long and much-awaited battle in the fields of psychiatry and human rights. Following this committee report, involuntary detention in psychiatric or mental health facilities without consent is now considered a violation of human rights and punishment can be sought.

It was great news. I had not expected such a bold and clear interpretation of the article 12 of the CRPD so early. And it is because of people like Gabor and so many others, who fought their whole lives to establish equal rights and stop the practice of involuntary detention, that the interpretation has been possible. This general comment is the greatest victory yet for the thousands of millions of people living with psychosocial disabilities and mental health problems across the world.

But while the community was celebrating this this historical moment, I couldn’t help but think of Gabor’s tragic situation. All of the sudden, I saw a thank you message from Gabor on his Facebook page–full of emotion, hope and victory. He wrote: “thank you all for your empathy, love and support. That means a lot. Kati’s health is slightly improved. No immediate danger. This morning, she was much more attentive than before. I spoke to her about the General Comment on the CRPD article 12. I can’t know how much she understood. Once I heard about the general comment I felt some peace. Pain is very much there and sorrow, but also peace”.

It was upon reading this that my eyes filled with tears. I reminded myself how indispensable liberty and freedom is in an individual’s life.  We do not have control over our future and destiny and at any time, we might suffer from disease, disability, mental illness, tragedy and the like. However, no misery can be a cause to take away an individual’s right to live as he/she pleases. Now a new era has begun where mental illness cannot be the reason or justification to deprive people of equal legal and human rights. I salute Gabor and the countless others who made it possible.

 

 

 

Why the Global Movement for Mental Health? Time to Join.

Countries in crisis are a breeding ground for ill health. The social, political and economic conditions harbored by crises – from Tsunamis and earthquakes to conflicts – make countries ripe for disease. That’s why we see figures related to infant and maternal mortality, life expectancy and most communicable and non-communicable diseases posing a real threat to the livelihoods of a good chunk of the population in countries like the Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq.

These factors of instability, destruction and violence have a huge impact on the mental health of a population as well. In fact, it has been proven that in countries where conflict is present the rate of mental health problems are higher. Take Afghanistan for example: it is estimated that 73% of Afghan women show symptoms of depression, 84% suffer from anxiety, and 48% from post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, the figures are not much better for men either, but, women being the most vulnerable group, suffer most.

In many African countries, the situation concerning mental health is simply diabolical. Decades of conflict and violence matched by extreme poverty and destitution have left huge populations in a mental crisis. However, as dire as the situation is, these populations are the “forgotten,” “condemned” to a life of “misery and abuse,” according to photographer and journalist Robin Hammond, who recently published a collection of revealing photographs depicting the suffering of those with mental health problems in African countries which are most in crisis.

The images are telling in themselves and speak volumes about the unthinkable extent to which men, women and children are being treated as sub-human – caged, locked-up, chained, abused, beaten and bruised – within their own communities. In many instances, as the photos describe, there seems to be no alternative available in the context of abject poverty, lack of awareness and access.

One photograph which stands out is of a 13 year- old Ahmed Adan Ahmed, who “spends his days walking in circles, or sitting running his hands through the sand at his feet,” as “for 10 years, he has been tied to a stick under the tarpaulin of a tent in a camp for Internally Displaced People in Galkayo, Somalia.” What is painstakingly hard to digest is that his mother Fawzia “sees no other option – if she doesn’t tie him he will run away,” she told the photographer.

Ahmed Adan Ahmed

In another photograph from Nigeria, the image is perhaps even more distressing: a “patient” is tied to a tree with his hands joined as if begging. The caption for the image reads: “Native Doctor Lekwe Deezia claims to heal mental illness through the power of prayer and traditional herbal medicines. While receiving treatment, which can sometimes take months, his patients are chained to trees in his courtyard. They begged the photographer for food – they say they are only fed once a day, sometimes only once every 3 days. The Niger Delta, Nigeria.”

Nigerian Man Chained to Tree

These photos and the collection by Robin Hammond is perhaps one of the most comprehensive collections of images which portray the devastating reality of the negligence of mental health issues and of those who suffer on the ground in some of the world’s most marginalized countries in communities. In the midst of upheaval, they are left to suffer in silence.

In countries like Somalia, ravaged by over two decades of civil conflict, the World Health organization says that at least one in three people have some kind of mental health problem. And yet, the way in which such a major problem is being dealt with is by not dealing with it at all. The victims of disaster are being made to bear the brunt of their countries’ crisis — well demonstrated in the way in which those who suffer from mental illness are living across Africa.

But I have to admit that when I saw these photographs, I couldn’t help but think about the situation in my own country, Nepal. Centuries of exploitation and poverty, followed by a brutal civil conflict and social, political and economic instability has left the country ravaged. In many ways, those who suffer from mental health problems in Nepal share a similar fate to those as shown in Robin’s photographs. One image, in particular, of a 12-year old boy, Prabin, whom I came across years ago, keeps coming to mind. He was chained and locked up for seven years because he “lost his mind”. His father had to leave his job as a policeman during the Maoist insurgency because of the fear of violence. And when Prabin was two and half years old, his father went to Malaysia for work and returned home only after four years. Since then, no one had been employed in the family and one family member needed always to be around to look after Prabin.

There were many cross-cutting issues I saw in Prabin’s family which are symptomatic of all countries in crisis— poverty, disability, mental illness, trauma from the conflict, lack of healthcare, migration and unemployment — all of which collectively pushed the whole family into a predicament, with Prabin at the centre of the suffering. Prabin is no longer in chains thanks to a few well-wishers, but thousands like him, young boys and girls across Asia and Africa, are still being chained, locked up and abused. Prabin’s photo is pasted below.

Youngboylookingup

If the simple fact that massive human rights abuses and violations don’t inspire you to act, consider this.

If the simple fact that massive human rights abuses and violations don’t inspire you to act, consider this:  Some of the most famous people in the world, contributing the most to our global prosperity, had mental health issues they faced.  The only difference is they were treated with respect, had access to quality social and health care services, and used their mental anguish to fuel their trade .  Some of the greats include Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, and others mentioned on our Famous Faces page.  Imagine a world where all those with mental health issues received timely support and treatment, and used their emotional depth as a force for good?

Today’s blog post is just a reminder, to myself and others who are working towards achieving the goals of the Movement for Global Mental Health, of why we need to pool our efforts to address this immediate crisis. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget why we do what we do. I hope this serves as a reminder to us all.

by Jagannath Lamichhane

With support from Bidushi Dhungel