Western Regional International Health Conference


One student’s view of the UW global health and justice confab: Watermarks | 

 Over the weekend, the University of Washington held a student-run conference on global health. This was the 9th year for the Western Regional International Health Conference and this year’s theme was on social justice and health. Here’s one UW student’s perspective as she jumped from one session to another. 


By Cyan James, special correspondent

Quick: tell me what’s watermarked on Angola’s 5-kwanza note?

Stumped? I thought so.

Turns out there’s a statue portrayed on every Angolan 5-kwanza, and it’s no Venus de Milo or David—it’s The Man Who Thinks Too Much, a bent, stylized figure who cradles his head in his hands (a little like Rodin’s ‘Thinker,’ but with more of a headache.)


In Angola, ‘thinking too much’ is an expression for depression. One of the panelists at the UW conference speaking on mental health, Dr. Paul Bolton of Johns Hopkins University, said jokingly: “Dumb people don’t get this disease.”

More seriously, Bolton pointed out that if Angola saw fit to watermark their currency with a symbol for depression, it could mean Angola takes depression seriously. Or at least knows about it.

It still surprises people to hear that depression is, in fact, one of the world’s biggest killers and causes of disability. Yet it remains neglected on the global health agenda. In 1990, health researchers — now based in Seattle — looked at the leading causes of death and disability and found mental illness was one of the most damaging diseases globally.

As I jumped from session to session at the University of Washington’s 9th Annual Western Regional International Health Conference, I found myself persuaded that mental health on a global scale remains both an important and largely invisible problem. One of the themes of the meeting was finding hidden paths to improving global health.

Like the watermark on Angola’s paper currency, mental illness is always there but often unseen.

I study mental health genetics in UW’s public health genetics PhD program. And I study a lot, so maybe I wasn’t exactly thrilled about spending a semi-rainless weekend back at school. But I went, mostly for the chance to talk about mental health and other ‘hidden’ global health subjects. 

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