Facing Down Mental Illness

The global economic costs of mental illness over the next two decades will exceed the costs of cancer, diabetes, and respiratory ailments combined. With the stakes so high, the human and economic case for leaders to take mental health seriously is clearly compelling.

DAVOS – Contrary to common perception, mental illness is a problem that is neither new nor unique to the developed world. What we call schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are recognizable in literature dating back to ancient Greece, and The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621 by the English scholar Robert Burton, remains one of the most astute descriptions of depression. Today, low- and middle-income countries account for most of the morbidity and 75% of the suicides that result from mental illness.

What is new, and encouraging, is the heightened attention now being given to the problem. Last year at Davos, I helped launch a new Global Agenda Council on Mental Health, after a study by the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health projected that the global economic costs of mental illness over the next two decades would exceed the costs of cancer, diabetes, and respiratory ailments combined. With the stakes so high, the human and economic case for leaders to take mental health seriously is clearly compelling.

As policymakers act, they would be wise to bear in mind that mental disorders are brain disorders. Too many people dismiss mental illnesses as problems of character or lack of will, rather than recognizing them as serious, often fatal, medical disorders. The brain is a bodily organ just like any other. We should no more blame a person for a malfunctioning brain than for a malfunctioning pancreas, liver, or heart. People with brain disorders deserve exactly the same level and quality of medical care as we expect when confronted with disorders of any other part of the body.

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