Head of UN health agency calls for efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness

4 April 2001

The head of the United Nations health agency today called for efforts to take the shame out of mental health illnesses, which affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

"Only when we address the stigma and discrimination together will we be able to make real progress," Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in an address at Mathari National Mental Hospital in Nairobi. She pointed out that globally, one person in every four will be affected by a mental disorder at some stage of life. "It is a rare family that will never have an encounter with it," she said.

Speaking just three days in advance of World Health Day, which this year will tackle the theme of mental illness, Dr. Brundtland emphasized that such disorders have "nothing to do with personal failure." Rather, those illnesses comprise "a set of mostly curable, but crippling diseases that attack our most vulnerable possession: our sense of self."

While taboos regarding AIDS and cancer were breaking down, people were still reluctant to talk about mental illness, she observed. "We don't want to know and we don't want to see," she said, adding, "We don't dare to understand and to care."

WHO estimates that currently, more than 400 million people worldwide are suffering from some kind of mental and neurological disorder, including substance abuse disorders. Five of the ten leading causes of disability are mental problems such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol dependence, and obsessive- compulsive disorders. Depression is ranked fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease, and the agency predicts that by 2020, it will have jumped to second place.

Dr. Brundtland held out hope in the face of these grim statistics, noting that there are now cost-effective interventions to treat the majority of mental and neurological disorders. "Yet, there is a great gap between the number of people who suffer from these diseases and the number who receive treatment and care," she said. In many countries, insurance companies discriminate between physical and mental disorders. Labour policies are less open to welcoming people with a history of mental disorders than those with physical ones.

In response, the WHO Director-General called for constant efforts to counter the negative stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding mental disorders and legislation to reduce discrimination in the workplace and in access to basic services.

 

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