SAN DIEGO— Unlike physical illnesses, mental illnesses are often invisible to the naked eye. There are few obvious physical characteristics that display mental illness. Perhaps the lack of physical manifestation of mental illness has contributed to its stigmatization.
In the past, those with mental illnesses were thought to be possessed by devils, and their diseases went improperly diagnosed. In the United States, those with mental illnesses were thrown into prisons before the era of insane asylums. Even in modern mental hospitals around the world, patients are routinely treated with abuse and live in inhumane conditions.
Today, individuals with mental illnesses who are able to receive proper treatment and support are in the minority. Those who live in poverty are disproportionately more likely to develop a common mental illness and they are the ones who have the most difficult times escaping the complex cycle of poverty and mental illness.
There is strong evidence that links poverty to mental disorders.
- People with the lowest socio-economic status are at an eight times greater risk in having schizophrenia.
- Highest estimated prevalence of mental disorders can be found among people with the lowest levels of education or people who are unemployed.
- In Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., four in ten people with severe mental disorders live in low-income households.
The evidence indicates that “the relationship between mental illness and poverty is cyclical: poverty increases the risk of mental disorder and having a mental disorder increases the likelihood of descending into poverty.”
In fact, individuals with mental and psychosocial disabilities are more vulnerable to social stigma, rape, violence and discrimination. They are prevented from participating fully in their societies and are restricted from fully exercising their political and civil rights.
Furthermore, mental illness is still seen by many as a personal weakness or a result of character flaws, and those with mental conditions are blamed for their own illnesses. Stigma prevents individuals from seeking treatment and help. But even more so than stigma, poverty can create an impenetrable blockade, leading to human suffering.
Despite their vulnerability and prevalence, people with mental health conditions (including schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug use disorders, child and adolescent mental health problems, intellectual impairments and epilepsy), have largely been excluded from development work.
Though mental illness is still a taboo topic in many societies, governments have a responsibility to help people with mental illness, as they would aid other individuals who face physical illnesses and other forms of discrimination.
Addressing mental illness has many benefits for a society. Easier access to treatment for mental diseases can help individuals find and keep their employment opportunities, reduce their medical costs and enable them to break out of the cycle of poverty. Addressing the mental health of women is essential because it will not only reduce child mortality but it will improve maternal health. Around two thirds of people living with HIV/AIDs have depression, while around half of the homeless population live with a mental disease.
Addressing mental illness can be difficult but can have far reaching consequences and should not be excluded from developmental schemes and plans to fight poverty.