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Visualizing the most neglected disease: Mental illness

--Flickr, porschelinn

By Amy VanderZanden, special to Humanosphere

Mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability around the world – and has been for at least the last 25 years.

While many communicable diseases have been shrinking in terms of the number of people they affect over the last two decades, the global burden of mental illness has largely remained the same. All forms of mental illness – including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia – account for nearly a quarter of all disability worldwide, and cause the most disability for those in the most productive age demographic, from 15 to 39 years old.

Mental illness is not just a problem in high-income countries. In developing countries, mental and behavioral disorders constitute nearly 22 percent of the total burden of disability in 1990. Little seems to have changed since then: These disorders made up virtually the same proportion of disability in the population in 2010 (just under 23 percent).

Burden of mental and behavioral disorders in 2010, and trends over time

Mental Illness IHME

 Notes: Source: Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. To explore the data visualization online, go to

Despite this stubbornly massive toll and the powerful impact they can have on people’s lives, diseases of the brain do not receive nearly the amount of attention paid to infectious disease outbreaks or even problems like obesity.

From the map above we can see that the burden of mental illness is spread almost evenly around the world. But experiences in each of those countries can differ based on the resources to help people cope with mental illness. While France, Botswana, Russia and Rwanda all face similar rates of mental illness, they have different abilities to respond to the mental health challenge.

The United Nations estimated that up to 75 percent of those suffering from mental illness in low-income countries are not getting access to help – compared to 35 percent to 50 percent in high-income countries. There are some differences by gender that are worth noting:

Percentage of total disability due to mental and behavioral disorders among men and women in developing countries, 2010

Mental Illness 2

Notes: Source: Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. To explore the data visualization online, go to

When we look at the causes that make up the mental and behavioral disorders, it becomes clear that depression is the top contributor to the burden of mental illness. For men, drug and alcohol use disorders are also big factors. Among women, anxiety disorders follow depression as a major disabling force.

Globally, according to the World Health Organization, more than 350 million people suffer from depression. It can become a serious health condition, particularly when it is long-lasting or of moderate or severe intensity. Depression affects people’s ability to work or participate in school, and its presence can impact whole families, particularly when a primary breadwinner is stricken.

Top causes of disability among women and men in developing countries, 2010

Mental illness female

Mental illness male

Notes: Source: Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. To explore the data visualization online, go to

The burden of major depression held first place among all disabling disorders for women in developing countries in 2010; among men, major depressive disorder rose to second place that year.

According to a 2011 World Economic Forum report on the economic burden of non-communicable diseases, “mental illness will account for the largest share of the economic burden in both 2010 and 2030, just slightly greater than cardiovascular diseases” – costing an estimated $2.5 trillion in 2010, and a projected $6 trillion in 2030. At the same time, studies have shown that treatment for depression can be less costly than not doing anything, in terms of increasing people’s productivity and overall health.

While mental illness remains perhaps one of the most neglected of diseases, when considered in terms of its global burden, we are starting to see momentum in the movement to make mental illness a higher global health priority.

In September, a group of physicians, researchers and practitioners from across the globe created an initiative for the Sustainable Development Goals being discussed by U.N. member states. The project, #FundaMentalSDG, is aiming to create a specific mental health target in the SDG agenda. This fall, mental health was an ongoing topic of discussion at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Annual Meeting.

 Amy VanderZandenAmy VanderZanden is a communications data specialist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). 


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