What does mental health look like in developing countries?

Today marks World Mental Health Day, 24 hours dedicated to raising awareness of and reflect upon the challenges faced by those with mental health difficulties across the globe.

People of all ages, genders, races, religions and socio-economic backgrounds can be affected by mental health. In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year. This can range from depression to anxiety, bipolar disorder to schizophrenia – and the impact can be colossal, affecting all areas of an individual’s life.

Depression is thought to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide, and it’s a major contributor to suicide and ischemic heart disease.

One of the biggest challenges faced by people with mental health difficulties is that of stigma. In the UK, things have improved greatly in recent years, with soaps tackling mental health issues in storylines, charity campaigns working tirelessly to battle the issue and big names like Stephen Fry and James Arthur speaking publicly about their own experiences.

Elsewhere in the world, however, attitudes are much further behind.

“In Bangladesh people won’t admit to having mental illness because of the stigma, which drives the issue underground,” explains Nur-A-Mahajabin Khan, a Project Officer with ADD International Bangladesh, one of the only NGOs working on this issue. “People don’t understand mental health, they think you’ve been possessed by evil spirits and you are seen as insane, subhuman and untouchable. Communities turn against you. You cannot stay in your family. You are driven out or isolated because people think you are dangerous. It is very common for people to be kept in chains with the animals in a very unhealthy environment.”

Bangladesh has a population of 160 million people – yet the country has only 50 clinical psychologists and 200 psychiatrists, with many faith healers claiming to offer ‘cures’ for mental health issues. Compare that to Britain, with a population of 64 million and almost 6,000 general psychiatrists, and you’ll see there’s a major shortage.

“There are thousands of malpractices happening, such as burying people up to their neck in soil and leaving them for 48 hours to purge out the demons,” says Mahajabi. “We heard a report of a woman with schizophrenia who was believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Under the instruction of a traditional healer, some members of her community put her in a bag and continuously submerged her in the river, to rid her of the spirits. As a result, she died.”

By 2030, depression could be the leading illness worldwide. Action is needed to ensure that everyone has access to good mental health care, both here in the UK and overseas. Without adequate support, and understanding from the wider population, millions of people are suffering unnecessarily.

“Everyone needs mental health support,” adds Mahajabin . “At the moment we are all sleeping, ignoring this issue, so we have to do something to wake people up. Mental health really needs funds. It’s already too late for so many people. And funding commitments need to be long-term, we cannot make change over a 3-year project cycle. It’s a lifelong issue.”

ADD International is a disability rights organisation with 30 years of experience in working with disability activists in Africa and Asia to bring about social change – including tackling the stigma around mental health. To find out more about ADD, and to support their work, head to www.addinternational.org.

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