End the stigma of mental illness

Mental and physical health are closely connected, with each contributing to overall wellbeing. (John McCann/M&G)

Mental and physical health are closely connected, with each contributing to overall wellbeing. (John McCann/M&G)

BODY LANGUAGE

The world faces an epidemic of mental health problems that cuts across borders, economies and cultures, and carries a stigma that leaves people suffering in silence. Tackling the problem requires political, business and civil society leaders to make mental health and wellness a global priority, starting with the Globalisation 4.0 discussions at this month’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Davos is clearly an appropriate forum in which to raise the issue. According to a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1-trillion every year in lost productivity.
The same study also suggested that every dollar invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety — the two most common mental health conditions — can generate a return of $4 in terms of improved wellbeing and increased ability to work.

The WHO study is a welcome intervention. For too long, we have detached the mind from the body and regarded mental conditions as something separate from our overall health. As a result, millions of people who need mental health support have been ignored, with a dramatic effect on economic resources, productivity and output.

The reality, of course, is that mental and physical health are closely connected, with each contributing to overall wellbeing. We must recognise this if we want the world to be a happier and more prosperous place for future generations.

To succeed, efforts to tackle major global problems such as mental health must be collaborative and sustainable. In this spirit, I urge leaders joining me at Davos to consider adopting four critical priorities to support mental health and wellness.

First, we need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. No one should suffer in silence with a condition that can be treated and even prevented in some cases. By acknowledging mental health and wellness issues at work, we can make a difference in our homes, schools and communities as well. Seeking mental health care should be as routine and unremarkable as seeking treatment for high blood pressure, diabetes or a heart condition.

Furthermore, we must reduce mental health inequity, a frequently ignored issue. This is often a problem in lower-income groups, where populations may be at greater risk of pathology and often face the highest obstacles to getting care, in part owing to a lack of the specialised resources available in wealthier areas. There are some innovative approaches to addressing this problem, such as Zimbabwe’s Friendship Bench, and I look forward to learning more about this project from one of its representatives in Davos.

Third, our health systems must shift from “sick-care” to “well-care.” To move mental wellbeing into the mainstream of health care and pursue primary prevention as the most efficient approach, we must understand how to counteract and ameliorate the effects of adverse childhood experiences, which are highly correlated with poor mental and physical health later in life. The game-changer will be found not in hospitals or clinics, but in communities that nurture rather than traumatise the next generations.

For companies such as ours, this means learning how best to deliver health, not just healthcare.

Last, and most relevant for healthcare leaders, we must redouble our efforts to connect mind and body. By better integrating mental health services into primary care systems, we can show that a mental health condition is no different from a respiratory, endocrine or heart issue. And people who need treatment beyond what can be delivered in primary care should be able to see a specialist in the same way they would be referred to an orthopaedist or cardiologist. A healthy mind is just as important to our overall health as strong bones and hearts are.

For the past three years, I have sought to use the World Economic Forum to make mental health and wellness a global priority. This year, I am encouraged and gratified to see that mental health will be a larger part of the discussions in Davos.

By bringing together global leaders from all sectors, we can make further progress towards ending the silent stigma surrounding mental health issues. We can devise innovative ways to improve mental health services, as well as people’s access to them. And we can help to ensure that mental health joins physical wellbeing as an essential component of Globalisation 4.0. — © Project Syndicate

Bernard J Tyson is chief executive of Kaiser Permanente, a health care company in the United States

Bernard J Tyson

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