by Sandra Gionas Wednesday October 10, 2012

Wednesday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day. Why observe another mental health day when we have a national week to mark our emotional well-being? Because regardless of our own efforts in Canada to address mental illness, treatment, and the stigma around it, other parts of the world lag far, far behind. Since TVO's special programming on Mental Health in May, we've kept in touch with the staff at Grand Challenges Canada, noting the worthy health care projects they are carrying out in developing countries. We asked Dr. Peter A. Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, and Dr. Pamela Kanellis, program officer, to tell us more about their work in these parts of the world, and they did more than that, today announcing a $19.4 million investment in global mental health in the developing world.

Mental health is a challenge everywhere, with over 450 million people in the world suffering from a mental health disorder. It’s a particular challenge in the developing world, where three-quarters of these people live – that's over 350 million people. In the developing world, mental health is perhaps the most neglected of neglected diseases: up to 85 per cent of people with severe mental health disorders do not receive any treatment. Everyone here in Canada knows a family member, a loved one, or a friend with a mental health problem – and how much benefit treatment can bring. But imagine if that person lived in the developing world where only one in seven people receive treatment!

What is worse is that people with mental health disorders in the developing world are stigmatized and sometimes even denied basic human rights. We heard a story in Uganda where a social worker asked a father, “How many kids do you have?” The father replied, “Four kids – and another one.” The social worker asked to see the kids and the father brought forward four kids. The social worker asked, “Where is the other one?” The father led the social worker to a back room, unlocked the door, and there was the “other one,” who was suffering from a mental health disorder, untreated and marginalized from its own family.

It’s because the challenge of global mental health in the developing world is so neglected, and the opportunity for positive change so great, that we at Grand Challenges Canada are today launching perhaps the largest single investment in mental health innovations in the developing world: $19.4 million for 15 bold ideas in global mental health. The projects will enhance access, improve treatment, and tackle stigma. They'll span 14 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, and will specifically address depression, dementia, drug and alcohol addictions, developmental disorders, children's mental health, domestic violence, and post-disaster trauma in places like Haiti. The programs will also launch in several post-conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Northern Uganda, Liberia, and Sri Lanka. 

These innovations are addressing the fact that there are 250 times more psychiatrists per capita in Canada compared to countries such as Ethiopia. Because of this, treating the mentally ill will require that community, lay and family members will act as mental health workers. It will also require the use of technologies such as cell phones, text messaging, and telemedicine to support diagnosis and deliver care.

Grand Challenges Canada is funded by the federal government. “Canada has a long and proud tradition of fostering innovation to improve the lives of people living in some of the most desperate situations,” said the Honourable Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance for Canada. “Global Mental Health is a significant challenge, which, left unaddressed, could undermine the health, social and economic futures of developing countries.”

Image credit: Grand Challenges Canada.