You know the World Health Organization best for its role in response to infectious-disease epidemics, or perhaps for the actors who play WHO roles in movies about infectious-disease epidemics. But this week, the global health agency announced its intent to strengthen its focus on illnesses that attack the mind, with a meeting in Washington of medical professionals and government officials — along with aid groups already engaged in this work — from across the globe. It’s a significant step forward in the acknowledgement of mental health as a central piece of physical health.
But the move is a practical one, too, driven by economic concerns. As Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, explained to NPR this morning, failure to address depression, anxiety, or other mental-health issues is currently costing the world $1 trillion dollars each year, according to recent estimates published this week in the journal Lancet Psychiatry. “This is a trillion with a ‘T,’” Saxena added for dramatic effect. (It worked.)
Advances in mental-health care are important for every country, but the need is especially great in poorer nations. Saxena again patiently explained this with numbers that no one listening could misunderstand. “There are countries which are in high-income range where there is a psychiatrist for every thousand people,” he told Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep. “And there are other countries — in Africa, Asia, also in Latin America — where there is one mental-health worker for 1 million or more population.”
This means, as Inskeep pointed out, that there are some wealthier nations with one thousand times more mental-health professionals on a per capita basis as compared to some poorer nations. There are also some countries, Saxena added, with a population of 19 million, and just three — three — psychiatrists to share. Refugees need special attention, too, as WHO data suggest that people who are forced to migrate face a 50 to 100 percent increase in their risk for developing some kind of mental disorder.
There is as of yet no how in place for the WHO; this is the question that this week’s conference is meant to solve, or at least begin to solve. For now, the bottom line is that the mental well-being of a nation’s population is now being shifted to the top tier of the WHO’s priorities, as important to a country’s development as, say, building a better infrastructure, for instance. “When it comes to mental health,” Saxena said, “all countries are developing countries.”