It’s usually diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria, or Ebola that get most of the global health headlines. But mental illness is actually the leading cause of disability worldwide. The majority of those affected live in low-income countries, where as many as three-quarters of people don’t receive any treatment at all. Funding for mental health rarely makes it into stretched health budgets. The little funding that exists ends up going in to mental institutions, many of which have appalling conditions. Many of these countries have weak policies and laws protecting the rights of people with mental illnesses, if rules exist at all.
Mental health professionals are few and far between, with many countries having just one psychiatrist for every two million people. Often there is no access to common medications. Stigma is rampant. The result is millions of people with mental illnesses living without treatment or dignity, a situation that has been called a “hidden crisis” in human rights.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The World Health Organization points out that there is a widely shared but mistaken belief that mental health interventions are sophisticated and can only be delivered by highly specialized staff. So when we set out to report on the state of mental health care around the world, we didn’t want it to be entirely bleak.
We wanted to shine light on the miserable conditions that so many people with mental illnesses endure. But we also wanted to find solutions – innovative ideas that are fairly easily implemented and can make a big difference. Often we found it’s about working beyond the confines of traditional mental hospitals. It’s about taking care where the people are, in their communities, in creative ways. Sometimes it involves utilizing people who are not formally trained in mental health care. In many cases, it isn’t about the mental illness at all, but about finding people work or a home and in doing so, restoring a sense of self-worth and an ability to contribute to their community.
Our reporting led us to individuals around the globe who are driven to make a difference for people living with mental illnesses. We found strong, passionate leaders – many having experienced mental illness themselves – who are working with minimal resources to have the maximum impact.
We travelled to Benin, where one man has built a network of community mental health centres as a way to spare people with mental illness from a horrific alternative – living out their lives in chains. We followed outreach workers through India’s slums, as they mobilized communities to care for people with mental illnesses and tackled stigma. In Jordan, we met a Syrian psychiatrist who is rallying other refugees to help Syrian children now so they can rebuild their country later.
The models we saw are each widely applicable and often require few resources. By bringing treatment to more people, these creative approaches are already making a difference. They have the potential to bring mental illness out of the shadows, and improve the lives of millions more the world over.
During the past year, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Videsh Kapoor into the classroom. Her guidance was invaluable both in the classroom and in the field. Click here to read her own impressions of the IRP project and her experience in the field helping students with “Someone to Listen.”