Improvement Involves Educators, among Others. (Mental Health)

By Herrman, Helen | UN Chronicle, June-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Improvement Involves Educators, among Others. (Mental Health)


Herrman, Helen, UN Chronicle


While programmes directed at improving physical health have had remarkable success in many parts of the world, mental health has been neglected. This neglect is all the more serious in view of the large and growing burden that mental disorders cause for individuals and the community. Social and economic development can also threaten mental health unless action is taken to avoid and reverse this. Most importantly, our knowledge is sufficient to take action, to reduce the burden and improve mental health through health promotion.' However, people in many countries and in different cultures remain convinced about the relevance of mental health to their own situations.

Partnerships between global and local communities can help make mental illness and mental health the business of everybody. The widely held opinion that this illness is a problem of the wealthy or the western world could not be further from reality. The World Health Report 2001 presents evidence that in all countries, whether rich or poor, mental illness is linked with poverty and the disadvantaged. There are new and effective treatments, including medicines for depression, psychosis and epilepsy, as well as psychological and social therapies, but they reach few of those who require them. Suicide is an important public health problem closely linked to mental health and is a major cause of mortality, especially for people living with mental disorders, affected adversely by alcohol and drugs and suffering social and economic stress.

The global community can contribute to local change by persuading decision-makers and the public that mental health is important and that change is possible. Improving mental health requires its promotion, as well as the prevention and treatment of disorders. The activities underpinning these are different from each other, but all depend on local information and research to support their planning and evaluation, for which international links and partnerships are again vital.

Mental health is the foundation for the well-being and effective functioning of individuals. It is more than the absence of mental disorder. It is the ability to think and learn, and to understand and live with one's own emotions and the reactions of others. It is a state of balance, with physical, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual contributions. (2) The links between mental and physical health are intimate and relevant in many ways to public health planning.

Mental health and the risk of mental disorders in a community are each influenced, for better and worse, by social and economic conditions. Rapid change and social and economic instability are apparent in many countries, some of which are related to global economic changes. Continued or growing impoverishment affects broad groups of rural and poorly educated people. Disasters, violence, displacement, urbanization, underemployment and family disruption are widespread. This is reflected in more discontent, more disturbed behaviour and more intolerance. These factors are associated with increased rates of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, as well as a decline in overall mental health. People become more likely to develop illness and less able to cope with its effects individually and in the family. The impact of these factors also makes it harder to gain access to health services because of cost, distribution or stigma.

Population growth and increased survival at all stages of life also mean that more people in developing and developed countries are reaching the age groups at risk for mental disorders. This includes adolescents and young adults-the age groups at risk for schizophrenia and common mental disorders, such as depression, and substance abuse--as well as older people, at risk for dementia. Families as primary caregivers receive insufficient support from services.

This situation requires dedicated action over a long period and the setting of priorities in each country and locality. …

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