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Fighting Poverty and Inequality Are Crucial for Mental Health, UN Expert Says


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Relief for some mental health conditions in certain populations could be in the hands of government officials, according to Dainius Pūras, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on health. 

“Inequality is a key obstacle to mental health globally,” he says in his new report, presented in Geneva on Monday.

The report argues government measures that place financial burdens on citizens, reinforce inequality, and do not address job insecurity pose negative effects on people’s mental health. As a result, addressing inequality and discrimination could be more effective in improving some mental health conditions than therapy and medication, Pūras told the Guardian in a recent interview.

“Many risk factors for poor mental health are closely associated with inequalities in the conditions of daily life. Many risk factors are also linked to the corrosive impact of seeing life as something unfair,” the report continues. 

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According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 970 million people living with mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. The number of people diagnosed with these particular illnesses has increased by 40% in the last three decades. More people are seeking help, creating a greater demand for care than can be met in several countries and resulting in a skyrocketing number of people relying on drug treatments for mental health conditions. 

Some experts view mental health conditions as primarily being caused by biological malfunctions, and disagree with Pūras’ viewpoint. However, Pūras and other experts argue that the stresses under which people live, including those perpetuated by government legislation, poverty, inequality, social isolation, and insecurity, should be taken heavily into account as factors contributing to declines in mental health. 

“People go to their doctors who prescribe medication, which is an inadequate response,” he said, arguing that mental health conditions cannot be solely treated like physical health problems. 

Critical of pharmaceutical companies’ role “in the dissemination of biased information about mental health issues,” Pūras says that government action is the antidote, not drugs.

Some organizations, such as the British Psychological Society, have welcomed the report. 

"Any approach focused on prevention must take into account the social determinants which affect people’s lives, and we will be raising our voice to be much louder in a bid to encourage the kinds of policies which are recommended by the Special Rapporteur," the British Psychological Society said in a statement.

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To combat the issue of rising mental illness, Pūras recommends that governments institute better early childhood and school programs, as well as rapid intervention programs for disadvantaged children. He also advocates for policies to reduce inequality and exclusion, strengthen unionization of the workforce, and improve financial assistance for those in need.

“This would be the best ‘vaccine’ against mental illness and would be much better than the excessive use of psychotropic medication which is happening,” he said.