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; 900,000 people
complete suicide every year; and nearly one-quarter of years lost because of
disability are attributed to mental illness, including abuse of alcohol and
drugs. By the end of this decade, depression is expected to be second only to
ischemic heart disease as a cause of disability worldwide.
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