The what, why and how of health and development

Stigma and mental health: taking a global perspective

According to the World Health Organisation, mental health problems are the leading causes of global health disabilities but misconceptions about these issues can create barriers for effective mental health care.

The 2007 Lancet Global Mental Health Series found that 18 of 19 low- and middle-income countries spend half their mental health budgets on mental hospitals and are reluctant to spend money on community-based resources.

This was partly due to the “endemic stigma” attached to mental illness and the fact that those experiencing mental health problems often avoid local mental health care resources for fear of being stigmatised.

Although stigma attached to mental health can vary across cultures, mental illness is often inappropriately linked to violence.

Mary O’Hara is a campaigner with SHiFT, a charity for reducing discrimination towards people with mental health problems. According to Mary, stigmatisation is partly the fault of the media.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness, what it is and who has it,” she says.

“For example, there is a link between mental illness and violence that is portrayed by media. It’s reinforced so much and so often it’s no wonder people think this.”

According to the WHO, a third of people believe there is a direct link between a mental health condition and the likelihood of the person with it to be violent.

Stigma can appear in many forms. In South Africa, a survey showed that most people thought mental illnesses were related to either stress or a lack of willpower rather than to medical disorders. And in Ethiopia, 75% of relatives of people with diagnoses of schizophrenia or mood disorders said that they had experienced stigma because of the presence of mental health in their family.

Some campaigners think the media can help remove stigma by reporting mental health responsibly.

“It is way behind other human rights issues in terms of reporting,” said Mary. “And when it is reported on, there’s usually a lot of sensationalism and not a lot of facts.”

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