MADISON, Wisconsin — Global mental health stigma holds the world back from progressing in the area of mental health care. Gen Z advocates and global organizations are taking a stand to dissolve global mental health stigmas and increase access to quality mental health care.
Global Mental Health Statistics
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that “In 2019, [one]in every [eight]people, or 970 million people around the world, [lived]with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depressive disorders the most common.” The WHO also highlights that with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases of mental illness rose across the world.
Impoverishment and conflict/violence also increase the risk of acquiring a mental illness. A study by Adam Mabrouk and others, published in 2022, notes that in sub-Saharan Africa, “one out of every seven children and adolescents (14.3%) suffers from major psychological problems.” Studies note that children who reside in war/conflict zones endure significant psychological issues due to the trauma. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also led to an increase in mental illnesses in the country, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
On top of the overwhelming need for mental health intervention across the world, global mental health stigma impacts access to mental health-related care as mentally ill individuals suffer discrimination and ostracism once diagnosed.
For instance, in Africa, mentally ill patients are often seen as “violent and destructive.” Dr. Dennis Daliri, a psychiatry resident at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Ghana, told Psychology Today that a couple reconsidered their engagement after the groom’s family discovered that the bride had a brother suffering from a mental illness. The family feared that the illness could be genetic and the bride would pass it on to the couple’s future children.
“Mental [illness]doesn’t only exist in North America. It’s prevalent all throughout the entire world,” mental health activist Meera Varma told The Borgen Project in an interview. “Oftentimes, [in]countries where mental health is very stigmatized, you don’t see a lot of data because people are apprehensive and nervous to self-report” a mental illness.
The WHO’s 2020 Mental Health Atlas showcased a global failure of mental health care as the world did not meet several mental health targets. The report showed that there has not been an appropriate uptick in mental health care for countries in need of service. Varma says, “… there are other countries where people are struggling and just because the data might not show it, doesn’t mean that it’s not there.”
The Connection Between Poverty and Mental Health
Poverty has a destructive effect on one’s mental health. The National Association of Mental Illness reports that those in poverty “exhibit worse mental health outcomes compared to people in low-poverty ones,” due to the survival-related increased levels of stress. The opposite also reigns true as poor mental health can make individuals more susceptible to falling into poverty. However, studies show that this is avoidable as mental illness interventions contribute to an increase in productive work days.
In 2016, a group of Kellogg researchers conducted a study in more than 250 communities in Ghana to assess the effects of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Participants who received therapy skipped fewer days of work due to health concerns, had a 10% lower risk of suffering from psychological distress and reported overall better physical health than those who did not receive the cognitive-behavioral therapy.
“Even though I was born and raised in Los Angeles, my entire family is from India; and there’s quite a lot of stigma [around]mental health in the Asian-Indian community,” says Varma. “Being the first person in my family to ever go to therapy was a big deal because we never had conversations about mental health growing up.”
Varma boasts an impressive resume at her young age. She has worked alongside singers and mental health advocates Shawn Mendes and Selena Gomez and participated in The White House Mental Health Youth Action Forum in 2022 in Washington D.C. Varma has amassed these accomplishments before even completing her master’s degree. The Los Angeles Times deemed Varma, along with other students, a Gen Z student who is “changing the conversation around mental health” following her success in having UCLA print the suicide hotline on the back of every student ID card. However, growing up, Varma did not envision this success.
“I’m 22 right now, but I almost didn’t make it to 18. I did not think I would even make it to my high school graduation,” said Varma. “But I did! I just want to be open, transparent and candid with my story so no person has to go through what I went through… As I got older, I began to speak more about my experiences with mental health. My main goal is to [create a space where]no one [feels]like they’re alone because I know what it’s like to feel alone.”
Stigma, Misconceptions and Labels
After being shamed for undergoing very traumatic public anxiety attacks during her time in school, Varma says that those with mental health issues should be treated with the same respect as those with physical ailments. “I thought that, if I had a physical illness or ailment, I wouldn’t be treated this way,” said Varma, speaking of the times students ridiculed her in school. “Since then, I wanted to speak about my experiences.”
But not all adolescents feel as comfortable as Varma when it comes to the topic of their own mental health. University of Chicago professor Miwa Yasui explains that this phenomenon comes from the fear of being viewed as “crazy” or “mad” in immigrant and refugee families.
These stigmas and misconceptions present themselves globally. In Africa, society regards people who suffer from mental illnesses as “bewitched.” India’s society would consider a mentally ill individual to be “possessed” or “crazy,” while Pakistanis would label the individual a “witchcraft victim” and Afghan society would consider the person weak or defective.
Combating Stigmas and Misconceptions
These stigmas stand as a significant barrier that keeps those with mental health concerns from seeking help, if it is available to them. Typically, people in low-income countries lack access to high-quality mental health care. Furthermore, the high costs and difficulties in access to mental health care also deter people from seeking help.
The WHO has made a commitment to combating global mental health stigma. Through its Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030, the WHO asks nations to “adopt strategic interventions to reduce stigmatization, discrimination and human rights violations against people with mental health conditions.” The WHO website, as part of the WHO’s anti-stigma campaign, also contains several fact sheets and stories that individuals and organizations can use to combat stigma through education.
Organizations and individuals across the world are joining the collective fight to dissolve mental health stigmas. These efforts, along with increased access to high-quality mental health care services for people in the most disadvantaged areas of the globe, will help the international community advance toward meeting the global mental health targets of 2023 and onward.
– Aspen Oblewski