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It’s World Most-Neglected-Health-Problem Day

Neon Brain

Neon Brain

It’s actually World Mental Health Day, and also Columbus Day.

Neither of these calendrical milestones are likely to get much public attention, unless perhaps someone can combine them for a story suggesting that Christopher Columbus only discovered the New World in 1492 thanks to his megalomania and narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I am not doing much this year for Columbus Day (the state of Hawaii officially refuses to celebrate it, by the way) and would like to focus most on World Mental Health Day.

Not much to celebrate really. Overall, I think it’s fair to say we’re doing a lousy job on mental health.

As I’ve reported before, mental illness is one of the leading causes of death and disability worldwide, yet it remains a very low priority on the global health agenda. Leading mental health researcher Vikram Patel has noted that mental illness kills more women than maternal mortality.

My friend and colleague Joanne Silberner recently reported on this disparity — between the global burden of this disease and the low attention it gets — on PRI’s The World, after a visit she paid to a clinic in Uganda. Said Silberner:

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 450 million people suffer from mental disorders, and a new report by the World Economic Forum figures the annual global costs of mental and neurological illnesses at $2.5 trillion. That is three times the economic cost of heart disease.

Here are some of the stories today about World Mental Health Day:

The Independent World Mental Health Day: Time to Invest

Voice of America Treatment for Mental Health Underfunded, Inadequate

Huffington Post World Mental Health Day — A revolution needed

UN News Centre UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urges more resources for mental health

Actualitie news Afrique WHO highlights global under-investment in mental health

The gist of most of the news stories is that we aren’t spending enough on mental health and so many experts and leaders are calling for more money.

Talk is cheap, of course, and these are tough economic times. Donations are down for the global AIDS response. I recently attended a UN meeting focused on chronic diseases where advocates called for expanding the global health agenda to better respond to problems like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. There’s a push to expand the number of slices despite a shrinking pie.

Many argue we need to increase the size of the pie, that investment in global health provides many times more in return. In lieu of that happening, perhaps the best chance for mental health issues — as well as other neglected diseases — of receiving more attention and resources is if the experts can finally agree on how best to set priorities in the global health agenda.

One would think it should be based largely on the burden of disease as well as the socioeconomic and health benefits of reducing that burden. We’re not there yet, partly because some problems are easier to solve than others, despite the disease burden, and partly because achieving that cost-benefit analysis I mentioned is also easier said than done.

Still, many say the gross neglect of mental health is perhaps the strongest evidence of our misplaced priorities.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.