Mental health: A fundamental Non-Communicable Disease for a healthier future
Imagine having cardiovascular disease. The doctor gives you the diagnosis, outlines a medical plan, and reassures you that you can recover – if you stick to the plan and guidance from the medical team.
You inform your family, friends and co-workers about the diagnosis, and their collective reaction is exasperation … and perhaps mockery. “It’s not that bad,” they insist. “Just get on with your life. You’re not sick.”
It sounds amazingly cruel, right?
For a heart patient, this reaction would be rare and outrageous. Unfortunately, the scenario is common for people living with mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Despite years of work to bring these diseases out from the shadows, stigma remains an enormous barrier to treatment. Surveys have revealed 80 to 90 percent of people with depression experience the discrimination and isolation of stigma … resulting in less than 20 percent of people seeking help (1).
Now, the problem has been underscored with urgency. This year, a report issued by the World Health Organization during the UN General Assembly in mid-September said cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases, along with mental health, cause nearly three-quarters of deaths in the world and kill approximately 41 million people every year (2). In fact, NCDs now outnumber infectious diseases as the “top killers globally,” with one person under 70 years of age dying from an NCD every two seconds. 86 per cent of those deaths occur in low and middle-income countries (2).
People with severe mental conditions often die prematurely – as much as two decades early – due to NCDs like diabetes and cardiovascular disease that often co-exist with mental illness. That’s why addressing NCDs and removing the stigma around mental health disorders are critically important.
Stigma – both conscious and unconscious – comes through loud and clear when you look at government-funded treatment programs: two of the most common mental health disorders, depression and anxiety, cost the global economy $1 trillion (USD) each year – but the global median government health expenditure addressing the conditions is less than 2 percent (3,4). Millions of people across the word are not getting adequate treatment and perhaps even more feel compelled to keep their diagnosis to themselves, putting themselves at risk instead of experiencing shame and isolation (5). The World Health Organization’s new Mental Health Atlas paints a disappointing picture of a worldwide failure to provide people with the mental health services they need, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting a growing need for mental health support (4).
October 10 is World Mental Health Day, an opportunity to raise awareness and mobilize efforts leading to better treatment. What better way to support people with mental illness than to permanently set aside actions that cultivate stigma, allowing our friends and colleagues to recover as if they had cancer or asthma?
Across the Middle East, and around the world we can change how people look at these disorders. But we must signal that receiving access to treatment is important – and we must address the access to mental health holistic care in the same manner that is exists for other Non-Communicable Diseases. If we do this, lives can be saved, and we will be embracing change for a healthier future.
Author: Ayman Mokhtar, Regional President,Middle East, Turkey, and Levant Viatris
(1)Making Mental Wellbeing a National Priority: World Government Summit 2022 (page 8)
(5) Making Mental Wellbeing a National Priority: World Government Summit 2022 (page 8)