By Vaughan C. Turekian, Allen Moore, and Mark M. Rasenick - First published on 06.23.2014 in Science & Diplomacy
When a person collapses in public, strangers rush to help. When a person manifests symptoms of mental illness in public, strangers look away or cross the street. Sadly, this all-to-common response by individuals could be a metaphor for official policy in much of the world. Most policy makers avoid engaging or investing in mental health programs, preferring to draw distinctions between mental health and somatic health. This is largely a product of stigma and ignorance about the causes of mental illness and potential treatments. It is true in America and other wealthy countries, and even more so in poorer countries.
As U.S. foreign policy makers strengthen the links between health and diplomacy, there is a need to elevate attention to the huge burden of mental illness. The World Health Organization estimates that mental illness constitutes 28 percent of the global burden of noncommunicable diseases, or 14 percent of the overall global disease burden. Around the world, an estimated 450 million people suffer from one or more mental disorders;1900,000 people complete suicide every year;2 and nearly one-quarter of years lost because of disability are attributed to mental illness, including abuse of alcohol and drugs.3 By the end of this decade, depression is expected to be second only to ischemic heart disease as a cause of disability worldwide.4