Tessa Hewitt, a member of the programme team at Health Poverty Action, blogs on the unmet need for treatment of mental illness.
There are currently 450 million people in the world suffering from mental or neurological disorders, and one in four people will be affected by disorders of this type at some point in their lives. Yet how often is mental health mentioned in terms of the global disease burden?
Mental health disorders affect a huge proportion of the population worldwide – both psychosocially and economically, as those with untreated mental disorders and their carers often cannot work to full capacity, thus exacerbating poverty – and has been identified as the single greatest contributor to disability, yet while the world focuses its attention on diseases such as cancer, malaria and AIDS, mental health is somehow swept under the carpet. The documentary ‘Hidden Pictures’ by Delaney Ruston explores the struggle of those suffering from mental disorders across the world.
It is estimated that over three quarters of those with mental disorders live in developing and middle income countries, where, particularly in rural regions, such disorders are often considered to be caused by witchcraft, a punishment from God, or possession by a demon or spirit. As a result, medical treatment is frequently not sought, simply because this is not considered a medical issue.
People may also resist turning to treatment because of the dishonour that they feel it would bring on their family, or because of the impact it would have on their employment or marriage prospects. Families may hide away those suffering from mental disorders in order to avoid the shame and social isolation they fear would result if their community were aware. In no small part due to this stigma, two thirds of people suffering from a known mental disorder never seek treatment from a medical professional.
The stigma attached to mental health disorders makes this is a topic that few people want to talk about, whether at individual or governmental level. Indeed, a shocking 30% of countries have no mental health programme at all. Although mental disorders make up 14% of the global disease burden, two thirds of countries spend 1% or less of their total health budget on raising awareness and providing treatment for mental health disorders, leaving huge numbers of people without adequate care.
Where mental health services are available, they all too often operate in contravention of human rights, as evidenced in ‘Hidden Pictures’ by Jeff from China, who has been seemingly permanently committed to a mental institution by his father, against his own wishes and despite a lack of evidence that he is suffering from mental health problems. The standard and availability of mental health services must be improved in tandem with raising awareness if this debilitating threat to global health is to be addressed effectively.
Mental illness is not something to be hidden away. Most mental disorders can be successfully treated through medication or counselling, alone or in combination, and such interventions can be highly cost effective. It is essential that the huge global disease burden of mental illness is recognised and brought firmly into the picture rather than being pushed to the sidelines of public health awareness campaigns and services worldwide.
Visit https://www.hiddenpicturesfilm.com/ for more information about ‘Hidden Pictures’.