A Global Look at the Fight Against Mental Health Stigma

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In its 2018 report on global mental health conditions, the Lancet Commission had very little good news to share. According to the report, the prevalence of mental health diagnoses is rising. At the same time, the number of specialized and general health workers remains extremely poor in low-income and middle-income countries.

In fact, according to the report, almost half the world’s population lives in countries where, on average, there is one psychiatrist to serve 200,000 or more people. Access to healthcare providers who are trained in the use of psychosocial interventions is even more scarce.

Even when individuals have access to service, the quality of service is often inadequate. The World Mental Health survey conducted by the World Health Organization found (WHO) found that one in five people with depressive disorder received minimally adequate treatment in high-income countries, dropping to just one in 27 in low- and middle- income countries.

Evidence shows that only about half of the people with a mental health disorder wish to seek help. The World Mental Health Survey found that “only 41 percent of people with anxiety, 57 percent of people with depression, and 39 percent of people with substance use disorders report that they have a mental health difficulty. Recent national surveys from India and China, home to one third of the global population, report that more than 80 percent of people with a mental health issue or substance use disorder did not seek treatment.

The World Health Organization identifies stigma as one of the reasons individuals avoid treatment. The Live Love Laugh Foundation surveyed individuals across eight cities in India to understand public perceptions of mental health. The survey found that 60 percent agreed with the statement, “One of the main causes of mental illness is the lack of self-discipline and willpower.” In the same survey, 60 percent agreed with the statement “mentally unhealthy people should have their own groups so as to not contaminate healthy people.”

The Indigo Network is a collaboration of researchers committed to better understanding stigma and discrimination related to mental illness. In its global survey of individuals with depressive disorder, Indigo found 79 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in at least one area of life.

Stigma not only prevents people from receiving the services they need, it also impacts support for local services, fundraising efforts, and legislative prioritization. In fact, funding availability is alarmingly low for mental health issues when compared to what is spent on other diseases.

In many low- and middle-income countries, less than 1 percent of the health budget is allocated to treat and prevent illnesses related to mental health. In looking at health funding in the UK, the charitable organization MQ found that mental health research received 25 times less funding, per person affected, than physical conditions such as cancer.

In recent years, a growing number of organizations around the world have addressed mental health stigma. Below are examples of several public awareness campaigns:

  • Canada: With its #GetLoud campaign, the Canadian Mental Health Association encourages Canadians to raise their voice to end discrimination and stigma associated with mental health issues.
  • Singapore: The National Council of Social Services’ Beyond the Label campaign is a five year emphasis aimed at encouraging the public to go beyond the label of a mental health diagnosis in order to view and regard persons for who they are.
  • Scotland: Managed by the Scottish Association for Mental Health and the Mental Health Foundation, See Me is challenging stigma and discrimination at its roots – at work, through health and social care, in education, in home and in local communities.
  • United Kingdom: #HeadsUp is a joint campaign by Heads Together and the Football Association. The campaign seeks to tackle stigma and change the conversation on mental health.
  • United Kingdom: Social publisher LADbible Group launched UOKM8? to provide young people with the necessary tools to start informed conversations about mental health.
  • Caribbean: Stronger Together is a campaign by The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) that offers information and strategies to assist communities in better coping with the psychological impact of adverse events before, during and after a disaster situation. It also aims to raise awareness to reduce the stigma about seeking mental health support.

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