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World Mental Health Day

10/10/2011

Today is World Mental Health Day. World Mental Health Day raises public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services.

Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” The WHO estimates that 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental or behavioral disorders or psychosocial problems, and that one person in four will be affected by a mental disorder at some stage of life.

It is important to note that a condition or disease that affects a person’s mental health is just as damaging as one that affects a person’s physical health. Unfortunately, though, in developing countries there is little recognition of the validity of such illnesses, and a great deal of stigma attached to them.

Stigma is a mark or label that leads to discrimination and remains one of the greatest barriers to people seeking treatment for mental health issues on a worldwide basis. Stigma affects peoples’ self-esteem, disrupts their family relationships, and limits their ability to socialize and to get housing and jobs. Stigma against mental illnesses is linked with discrimination and human rights abuses, with some of the most disturbing violations taking place in psychiatric hospitals. In both developing and wealthy nations, mental health services and institutions are underfunded and understaffed, functioning largely as warehouses for those who suffer.

Why does this stigma exist?

Unfortunately, stigma exists because of cultural beliefs about mental illness. Images and derogatory language in the media maintain beliefs about mental illness being incurable madness. Tabloids regularly use words such as ‘psycho’ and ‘bonkers’, which indicate a lack of sensitivity to people with mental illness. This encourages the public to believe that it is acceptable to fear and ridicule mental illness.Due to this lack of knowledge and the influence of stereotypes in media, the general public tend to view the mentally ill as unpredictable, responsible for their bizarre beliefs and behaviour, incapable of rational thought, and probably dangerous. When these beliefs filter through society at many levels it is no surprise that the mentally ill often find themselves socially excluded and isolated.

Mental illness is one of the invisible burdens on developing societies, accounting for four of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide. The disease burden is greater than that of all cancers combined. Stigma and discrimination often define the barriers that prevent so many from accessing less costly and effective early interventions critical to maintaining a productive and meaningful life. If millions of people in both developed and developing countries could access appropriate mental health treatment without fear of labeling or discrimination, and could remain as productive and contributing members of the community, the economic benefits to communities would be countless.

Great strides have been made in the field of mental illness stigma research over the past decade through the efforts of many people that have devoted their careers to this issue. But much more needs to be done. We are learning a great deal about how to increase knowledge and understanding of mental illnesses – more people now believe in the effectiveness of treatments. Progress, however, in the area of changing attitudes and behaviors has been challenging.

What is important to foster good mental health? A climate that respects and protects basic civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights is fundamental to mental health promotion. Without the security and freedom provided by these rights, it is very difficult to maintain a high level of mental health. According to the WHO, “National mental health policies should not be solely concerned with mental disorders, but should also recognize and address the broader issues which promote mental health. This includes mainstreaming mental health promotion into policies and programmes in government and business sectors including education, labour, justice, transport, environment, housing, and welfare, as well as the health sector.”

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