How Poverty Affects Mental Health


When people talk about non-communicable diseases, they do not usually think of mental illness. However, mental illnesses constitute a larger share of the global disease burden than both cancer and heart disease, and by 2030, major depressive disorders will represent the single most important cause of disability worldwide.

Discussions about health concerns such as HIV/AIDS or malaria and their relation to poverty are very common, but we hardly ever hear about how poverty affects mental health. It is important to remember that mental illness does not occur in isolation, but is instead deeply interconnected with the circumstances people live in. Given the constant challenges related to poor health and poverty, it is not difficult to understand that major depressive disorders disproportionately affect the poor.

However, due to the need to prioritize the limited resources allocated to global health-related aid and the relatively lower profile of mental health concerns, this problem is severely under-addressed. Indeed, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 85% of mental illness in low- and middle-income countries is untreated. The gap in care for the mentally ill in the developing world has motivated many social sector organizations to look for ways to address this problem.

For example, in response to the severe under-treatment of mental illness, Partners In Health (PIH) set up mental health and psychological services as part of its emergency response to the Haitian earthquake, although it is now working to integrate mental health care into the Haitian health system in a more on-going way.

The Brazilian Association of Community Therapy has created a new approach to address mental illness in Brazil’s favelas. The organization trains community members to assess and treat the psycho-social effects of poverty and marginalization. So far, 12,000 people have been trained and over 3 million have been treated; in support of the methodology, the Brazilian government has worked to open 1,600 community-supported Psychosocial Care Centers all over the country.

In Liberia, Tiyatien Health has been training community health workers to deliver home-based care to the country’s rural poor to help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (44% of the population) and clinical depression (40% of the population) as a result of the country’s civil war, as well as those who are HIV positive (1.5% of the population).

As a result of these and many other innovative initiatives by the social sector, the global health community is starting to take note of how poverty affects mental health and is realizing the importance of this issue. For example, the WHO will present a draft of a comprehensive mental health action plan for 2012-2020 at the World Health Assembly in May of this year. This indicates growing momentum in addressing mental health issues in general and those related to poverty in particular.

– Caroline Poterio Martinez

Source: Next Billion
Photo: FOX News


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