By Ariel Kim, Managing Editor
In 2016, the American Psychiatric Association surveyed 1,025 adults and found that over 20% of those surveyed did not believe that mental health was a top priority for United States policymakers. Ironically, however, two-thirds of those same participants agreed that untreated mental illness has had a significant negative impact on the U.S. economy, and 94% said that mental health was as important or even more important than physical health. The truth is that most Americans believe that improvements need to be made in their country’s mental health care system. But is mental health really a public health issue?
Most definitely, yes! Today, a variety of mental illnesses affect more than 450 million people around the world. Depression is the second leading cause of injury and disease worldwide. More than 22% of the U.S. adult population suffer from at least one mental disorder each year, while 10% of American children have debilitating mental disorders. On top of this, mental illness costs the U.S. approximately $150 billion each year (excluding the cost of research).
Understanding and managing mental illness on both the national and international levels requires several steps. First, we must recognize that mental health is a serious public health issue that causes tremendous burdens on both affected individuals and families as well as entire nations and governments; the stigma surrounding mental illnesses must be done away with. Though the aforementioned statistics might indicate that perception of mental illness has improved significantly in America in recent decades, stigma persists in most other places around the world. People still do not realize that mental disorders are “real.” Many believe that depression, anxiety, and other disorders are simply signs of weakness that can be overcome through perseverance. Others think many mental disorders are self-inflicted; some even fear the mentally ill. According to studies of attitudes toward individuals with schizophrenia or major depression, most respondents believed that those with mental health problems were “unpredictable, dangerous,” and/or less employable. Furthermore, it isn’t just those who are not experienced or educated about mental illnesses that hold antiquated beliefs; it includes those who know others with mental health problems and even medical professionals.
Dismantling stigma has proven difficult, especially because even those who are generally well-informed regarding mental illnesses can fall prey to commonly accepted falsehoods. This means that educational and informational campaigns alone will not be effective. It is more important to reduce prejudice by promoting events that encourage mass participation and social contact between individuals with and without mental health problems. A cohesive and collaborative community be less likely to hold stigmatizing beliefs about members of their own community.
What are the next steps? After dismantling stigma, we must also work to do more research on mental illnesses, particularly regarding their connection to brain disorders or abnormalities. The former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, argued that we must start viewing mental illnesses as brain disorders, focusing on genetics or other molecular and more scientific approaches to detect abnormalities in the brain. Other experts have argued for greater emphasis on the relatedness of physical and mental health. Normalizing mental health problems as similar to physical issues may also help with dismantling some of the stigma.
Increased research can lead the way to finding effective prevention methods. According to Sandro Galea, professor at Boston University School of Public Health, “A focus on prevention can catalyze a public health approach to mental health.” Prevention methods, particularly the discovery and advancement of vaccines, have tremendously reduced the prevalence of many diseases. However, prevention strategies for mental disorders have not yet been developed. In such a sense, “all countries can be thought of as developing countries” when it comes to mental health. The world must cooperate to promote research of better and new prevention methods.