Mental Health and Illness: At home and abroad

Nick Kristof really hit the nail on the head in his Sunday column in the New York Times “First Up, Mental Illness. Next Topic Is Up to You,” where he called out mental illness as one of the major issues systematically neglected to be given the seriousness and attention it deserves.

Mental illness is still the black sheep of the health world, both domestically and internationally. Like Kristof mentioned, the only time mental health comes up in American public discourse is in reaction to analyzing a human atrocity, usually a mass shooting or serial killer, only further stigmatizing it as a disease “crazy” people suffer from.

It will always be unclear to me as to why we give so much attention to diagnosing and treating physical ailments and forget that the brain is a physical part of the human body, and needs to be taken seriously and treated accordingly.

And just as it is neglected in domestic conversations on health, it is also a last priority in international health work. At the risk of sounding crass, what is the point of pouring all these resources into keeping people alive without also making sure they can go on to live full lives? This is particularly true when treating people living with and coping with life-long diseases like HIV.

This struggle was a theme I noticed over and over again while working with a group of youth living with HIV in Malawi. Yes, it was great that they were able to access antiretroviral treatment, certainly a huge improvement from only a few years ago when even that wasn’t widely available, but that is still not good enough. I explored some of the issues they face in my blog post from 2012, Psychological effects of being born with HIV for emerging adolescents, where it was clear that so many of the adolescents I worked with were suffering from depression and anxiety.

There are few organizations or institutions who measure the number of people suffering from mental illness in developing countries and suicide goes mostly undocumented. It is as though we think that depression and other mental illnesses are diseases only suffered by the privileged, who pay $250 a therapy session. But as far as I’m concerned, if we are going to care for people, we need to care for the whole package, not just pick and choose. The human mind is just as vulnerable as the human body, and both are equally as important to provide care for.

In response to the deficit of mental health providers in Malawi, I helped found an organization called Teen Support Line that focuses on providing psychosocial support for adolescents living with HIV. While we are focusing on a specific demographic, what we’ve found is indicative of what all people need to live mentally healthy lives – someone to talk to; someone who will listen; someone to help them process difficult situations; someone to stand with them; and sometimes medical treatments to target chemical imbalances in the brain. The human mind is just as vulnerable as the human body, and both are equally as important to provide care for, and should be integrated into all treatment plans, no matter where in the world you live.