When the famed chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain died by suicide last year, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the beloved globetrotter and for those living with mental health problems more broadly.
Many people urged those considering suicide to seek help, and started a much-needed conversation about support for people experiencing mental illness.
But most suicides don’t spur such society-wide reckonings. Instead, they often happen quietly, pass by almost invisibly, and are often spoken of with shame, if spoken of at all.
This shame and silence magnifies the problem, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Every year, more than 800,000 people die by suicide, meaning more people die from suicide than from the violence of others.
“Stigma, fear, and lack of understanding compound the suffering of those affected and prevent the bold action that is so desperately needed and so long overdue,” Lady Gaga and Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the WHO, wrote in a Guardian op-ed published in Oct. 2018.
And globally, according to a 2018 report, more than 13 million lives could be saved each year if mental health issues were properly funded and addressed.
At least one in four people around the world will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, whether it’s anxiety, an eating disorder, or schizophrenia — and half of these illnesses will crop up during teenage years.
Most of these illnesses can be dealt with in productive ways through medical interventions, but first the stigmas have to be removed. These stigmas vary dramatically around the world, but in nearly all countries they lead to underfunding, misdiagnoses, and exacerbate what is an ongoing health crisis.
The best way to end stigma and deal with the crisis is by learning about mental illness and its pervasive grip on the world. Here are five crucial things you should know.
1. Gaps in Funding and Access
The lack of international attention paid to mental illness directly results in a lack in mental health funding. Globally, mental health receives less than 1% of aid, according to the WHO. Low-income countries, meanwhile, dedicate less than 0.5% of their health budgets on psychosocial disabilities, which leads to less than 20% of some populations being able to access mental health services. Sometimes only one or two psychiatrists exist for 1 million people.
In high-income countries, mental health funding averages 5.1% of health budgets, the WHO reports, which is still inadequate to the scale of the problem.
2. Women & Girls
Women are more likely to live with depressive disorders than men around the world, and they’re also more likely to face bias when seeking medical help, which then reinforces stigmas, the WHO found.
Women are also highly vulnerable to sexual violence, which can cause long-term and debilitating trauma.
UN Environment/Hannah McNeish. Women carry wood from the forests of Anjouan island, where UN Environment and partners are helping communities restore forests to stop soil erosion and failing harvests in the Comoros archipelago.
Environmental factors play a crucial role in shaping mental health. This is especially true as climate change accelerates around the world, causing more extreme droughts, heat waves, storms, and more.
For example, when people are displaced from natural disasters, the trauma of losing their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life can lead to long-lasting mental health issues.
Similarly, air pollution can impair a person’s quality of life, potentially leading to depression and other illnesses.
4. Food & Hunger
OCHA/Muath Algabal. A 12-year-old boy carries soap supplied by the UN in the Bani Harith neighbourhood of Sana’a in Yemen.
Eating a quality diet is not just important for physical health — it can also affect mental health. Globally, more than 795 million people suffer from food insecurity, and this has been linked to higher rates of mental illness.
Diets lacking in key nutrients, meanwhile, can disrupt your gut’s microbiome, which can lead to anxiety and other disorders.
Because of reigning stigmas around the world, children are often unable to receive proper treatment for mental illnesses as they’re growing up. Since around half of mental illnesses start during teenage years, schools can help to destigmatize mental health and promote atmospheres of openness, encouraging students to seek help.
For students in emergencies, the need to address mental health is even more urgent because of the widespread trauma that children in crisis zones often struggle with.
In parts of Bangladesh, for example, more than 500,000 Rohingya child refugees are at risk of missing out on an education. The nonprofit Artolution is trying to help children both re-engage with school and cope with their trauma through art.
“Education in emergencies can both sustain and save lives,” Allison Anderson, an adjunct professor at Columbia University who has spent years working in refugee camps, told Global Citizen last year. “By providing a safe space where children can play and learn, it’s a space to disseminate information to young people and get it out to the wider community.”