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Visualizing Mental Illness Worldwide

Guest post by Katie Leach-Kemon, a policy translation specialist from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Mental health problems cause a surprising amount of suffering around the world. More than 450 million people are estimated to suffer from some form of mental illness. A recent podcast from The Guardian explored the extra challenges many people afflicted with mental illness face in developing countries such as harassment, stigma, and inability to earn a living.

In 2010, mental and behavioral disorders–which include conditions like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and drug and alcohol use disorders—caused 23% of total years lost due to disability at the global level.

Mental health issues cause the most disability in ages 15 through 39, as seen in the graph below, which is a screenshot from one of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s data visualization tools associated with the Global Burden of Disease 2010 database.

Mental Illness GBD

When taking into account differences in population growth and aging across countries, rates of disease burden from mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety vary among countries, as shown in the maps below. The links to the live maps online for depression can be found here, screen grab just below left.

AfghanistanDepressionHigher levels of depression in countries such as Afghanistan and Libya can be attributed to conflict, but it is unclear what factors are driving lower levels of depression in countries like Japan, Mexico, and Australia. Some countries like China may appear to have lower levels of depression due to stigma affecting people’s willingness to report depression. 

AnxietyGBDTo the right is a screen grab from a GBD tool looking at anxiety, flagging Serbia and Algeria as the world’s most anxious (red, orange).

Go to the IHME online site to explore and get the full experience. It’s perhaps debatable if Serbia and Algeria are the most anxious of nations, and is likely just evidence of the need for better data on mental health and illness.

“GBD relies on self-reported data to estimate disease burden from depression,” said IHME Professor Theo Vos.  “Mental health researchers have argued that cultural influences make people less willing to respond to questions about mental health, which may explain the lower levels of depression recorded in China.”

For levels of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, however, there are no statistically significant differences across countries. “Mental and behavioral disorders are very common everywhere,” said Vos.

Although levels of mental disorders are similar in many countries, major differences exist between men and women.

Worldwide, depression and anxiety are more common in females than males, as shown in the figure below and in the data visualization tool online.

Gender Mental IllnessAccording to Vos, intimate partner violence and childhood sexual abuse, which are leading risk factors for depression among females, could in part explain the higher burden of depression among females. “Developing interventions to modify these risk factors could be key for reducing differences in depression between men and women,” said Vos.

Greater investment in identifying tools to prevent and treat mental illness is also needed. “Even with full access to the mental health services, at least half to two-thirds of the burden of mental illness is out of our reach,” said Vos. “The tools we have available for mental disorders are nowhere near as effective as those for cardiovascular diseases.”


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Humanosphere will sometimes post articles from authors from around the globe. Although these folks are not regular contributors, we hope you enjoy this change of pace.