06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Global Health Day Should Include Mental Health

On this Global Health Day, let us remember that there is no health without mental health.

Legislation and policy are often slow to respond to the international community. However, two weeks ago, Representative Barbara Lee introduced to Congress the Global Health Act, which would provide $2 billion over five years to increase the number of health workers in developing countries, improve primary care, and account for the effective use of aid money. This act must include the provision of mental health if it is to comprehensively address health.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Neuropsychiatric conditions (such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) account for about 15 percent of the global burden of disease. But the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that 40.5 percent of countries have no mental health policy.

Too often those that suffer from mental illness are marginalized and become victims of stigma. But ignoring or neglecting this population only hurts society as a whole.

My early work in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Haiti have shown the abysmal conditions that those with mental disorders must suffer through when the government and community do not have the funds or initiative to invest in mental health.

Many of these global neighbors are being chained to beds or chairs in community asylum houses, tied to trees and bound by wrists and ankles in their villages, beaten to remove the Devil from their soul, forced to drink contaminated holy water by priests, scalded by burns from leaves given by traditional healers, or given expired medications or sub-standard treatment by clinicians.

The Global Health Act focuses on developing health systems focused around AIDS, malaria, maternal mortality and other treatable medical conditions. But mental illness is also treatable, and equally integral to a community's health.

Depression, for example, is the leading cause of disability, and currently the second cause of disability-adjusted-life-years (DALYs), or healthy life-years lost, in men and women between 15-44 years old. This means that affected people have a hard time contributing to the work force, participating in society in a meaningful way, have strained relationships, and may become large users of health care dollars as they also have more chronic medical issues.

Many will raise the point that there are other priorities that trump mental health. This raises the issue of stigma around mental illness, as the above shows the extent and impact of the global burden of mental disease.

The World Health Organization's Global Health Day helps raise awareness of global needs, and the Global Health Act tries to address these needs. But the world cannot continue to ignore the importance mental health and physical health, to truly understand the plight of those suffering from health disorders.