Africa: Mental Health Week Goals - More Treatment, Less Stigma

Photo: IPS
Mental health issues often leads to isolation.

Washington — Broadening global understanding about mental illness is the goal of the World Health Organization's World Mental Health Day October 10 and National Mental Health Awareness Week October 7-13 in the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is focusing on "Depression: A Global Crisis" in 2012, promoting more openness on mental health issues, and greater investments in prevention and treatment services.

The consortium of organizations studying mental health estimate that about 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, which experts say is an actual disease of the brain, not just a bad mood or a bad day. One international survey on world mental health released in 2008 found that about 1 in 20 persons, from diverse nations, reported an episode of depression in the year prior to being interviewed.

Loss of interest or pleasure, decreased energy, feelings of guilt and low self-worth are all symptoms of depression and can lead to suicide. WHO reports that 1 million people take their own lives each year -- that is, about 3,000 deaths per day. For every successful suicide, 20 other people may make the attempt.

Depression is considered a leading cause of disability for the population at large, but occurs at a 50 percent higher rate in women than in men. For women in both developed and developing countries, depression is the sole cause of most disability, WHO finds.

Treatment involving medications, psychotherapy and psychosocial support are shown to be effective in many patients, but 50 percent of people who need it don't get it, according to the research. In some developing countries the figure is even lower, with as few as 10 percent receiving help and support to overcome this disability.

In the developing world, access to the proper care is an obstacle to receiving care because there is a very small cadre of mental health professionals in many countries. One WHO fact sheet notes that some countries may have one lone psychiatrist.

Stigma and the fear of being outcast because of a mental disorder can also prevent an individual from seeking care, even in developed countries. The WHO fact sheet reports on medical surveys showing that in one European country as few as 14 percent of people seek treatment for depression in the first year of an episode.

But there is progress. WHO reports that an effort to provide group psychotherapy in rural Uganda helped substantially to reduce symptoms in the more than 340 men and women who participated.

In Chile, about 240 women suffering major depression participated in a therapeutic program in which they received psychosocial care with follow-up and drug treatment. The enhanced level of care in this group delivered a 70-percent improvement in contrast to the progress made by a control group receiving only standard care.

In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) observes a week of awareness in the first full week of October by the direction of a congressional order passed in 1990. NAMI reports that one in four U.S. adults experiences a mental health problem in any given year. One in 17 lives with serious, chronic illness.

A National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding will take place on October 9. National Depression Screening Day, during which many medical professionals in the United States offer free educational and screening programs, will take place October 11.

NAMI identifies itself as the largest U.S. mental health organization working to build better lives for Americans affected by mental illness through advocacy of access to services, treatment, support and research.

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