Asia-Pacific Analysis: Defusing the mental health time bomb

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A psychiatrist sees someone at his office. Copyright: Panos/Stuart Freedman

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  • Medicine has traditionally focused on physical rather than mental health
  • WHO says one in four people hit by mental illnesses at some point
  • UN and other organisations pitching in to deal with mental disorders

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A mental health disorder time bomb may be upon us and waiting to explode, writes Crispin Maslog.

[MANILA] As medicine developed from Hippocrates to medieval medical practitioners and then modern scientists, the main concern has always been about caring for and curing sicknesses of the human body. The focus was on setting up hospitals for visible diseases, with small sections inserted as afterthoughts for psychologists and psychiatrists to deal with illnesses which were not readily palpable.  
In more modern times, wellness centres became the big thing. These provided facilities and experts for the development and care of the body but provided very little or no resources at all for the mind. The mantra was a healthy body promotes mental health

“We can start by de-stigmatising mental illness. To treat mental illness, we must recognise that it is part of the human condition and begin to understand its causes and cure even among the young”

Crispin Maslog

Prevalence of mental disorders

However, the environment is changing. Mental health and brain disorders are increasingly becoming prevalent, perhaps as a result of our more hectic, dizzying pace of living. Many more incidents of suicide and depression have affected people we know personally or hear about through mass media.
Only a few years ago I lived three years on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe n the McLaughlin-Fort Yates area in North Dakota. We heard of suicides every few months among young Native Americans, caught between their past and their future, and whom we knew through friends on the reservation. The rumour, even today, is that suicide is common among the Native American youth.
Also contributing to the changing consciousness about mental health or illness are the increasing instances of celebrity suicides, with apparent substance abuse as an alleged factor in some cases.
The suicides of American fashion designer Kate Spade on 5 June 2018 and CNN celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain three days later are the most recent and sensational. Both were at the height of their careers when they cut their lives short.
The statistics regarding mental health disorders are staggering. WHO says one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lifetime. And about 450 million people around the world suffer from some mental health disorder at any given moment.

mental health infographic

In the US, about 20 per cent of adults will experience some form of mental illness in the course of a year, with anxiety disorders the most common among them, and 21 per cent of children between ages 13 to 18 suffer from a serious mental health condition. (1)
The statistics from the World Economic Forum (WEF) are even more startling. Anxiety affects one billion people in the world, according to WEF, which met on the topic of mental health in 2018 and 2019. (2)
Nearly 300 million suffer from depression, 60 million are affected by bipolar affective disorder and another 21 million have schizophrenia or other severe psychoses. In addition, more than 150 million aging people are expected to be victims of dementia 30 years from now. (2)
In terms of percentage of world population, the most common mental health condition is anxiety disorder, affecting 3.83 per cent of the 7.7 billion world population (as of 2018), followed closely by depression affecting 3.77 per cent of the population.
An interesting footnote to these statistical data is that countries in North and South-East Asia had fewer cases of mental health problems compared to the other regions of the world. Arguably, it might be due to the still strong family ties in these regions.

Addressing the problems

 The good news is that these problems are coming to light and steps are being taken to address them, led by the annual WEF in Davos, Switzerland, with no less than the UN and its agencies pitching in. (3)
The WEF, addressing the mental health problem from an economic point of view, warned at its 2019 annual meeting that the global mental health crisis could cost the world US$16 trillion by 2030 in terms of lost man hours. With mental disorders on the rise in every country in the world, no one anywhere is immune.
But if the WEF and other organisations all the way to the UN have their way, all of that is going to change in the next few years. (Mental health was also a key topic at another, even larger, global gathering in 2018: the UN General Assembly.)
Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, coming out of WEF 2019, says “It's time to end the stigma surrounding mental health” , and urged confronting the issue head-on beginning now. (3)
“The world faces an epidemic of mental health problems that cuts across borders, economies, and cultures and carries a stigma that leaves people suffering in silence. Tackling the problem requires political, business, and civil society leaders to make mental health and wellness a global priority,” Tyson adds.

De-stigmatising mental illness

We can start by de-stigmatising mental illness. To treat mental illness, we must recognise that it is part of the human condition and begin to understand its causes and cure even among the young. The sooner we recognise and treat it in the youth, the better the chances of success.
After we recognise that the problem exists, we must shift from “sick care” to “well care,” to borrow a phrase from the experts. We have to move mental wellness into the mainstream of health care and work on prevention as the approach. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. We must expand our wellness centres to care for mental, as well as physical, wellness.
The game changer, the experts say, will be found not in hospitals or clinics but in communities that nurture rather than traumatise the next generations. This means learning how best to deliver health, not just health care. 
Let us harness neuroscience. We can use the advances of today’s science and technology for innovations in mental health treatment and care. We need to diffuse the mental health disorder time bomb before it is too late.
Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
 This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.


1.     World health report, mental disorders affect one in four people
2.     Three ways the world must tackle mental health in Mental health tops the World Economic Forum healthcare agenda at the 2019 Annual Meeting.
3.     Why this is the year we must take action on mental health, Elisha  London Chief Executive Officer, United for Global Mental Health (United GMH); Peter Varnum Project Lead, Global Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum