Mental Illness and Public Health

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In many parts of the world, mental illness has long been considered a taboo topic, one unworthy of public discussion or acknowledgement. In recent decades, however, health care specialists around the globe have begun to shine the spotlight on mental illness and its wide-ranging impact on overall health. Learn how experts are reframing mental illness as a public health concern, and discover some important connections between mental health and public health.

Depression and World Health Day

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize depression as a critical public health issue, as this mental illness is a leading cause of both injury and disease for people around the world. By 2020, the CDC estimates that depression will be the second most common cause of disability in the world, following only heart disease. Depression has secondary effects on family members, friends, and colleagues, thus impacting communities as well.

According to the CDC, depression means much more than simply feeling sad or irritable. It also has a negative effect on a person’s productivity and earning power, which can cause absenteeism, unemployment, and lower income. Overall, depression accounted for a total economic burden of over $200 billion in 2010.

For public health professionals, one of the biggest challenges related to depression is providing access to services. In an attempt to address this growing problem and reach the communities that need assistance the most, the CDC and local public health organizations support monitoring communities for symptoms and effects of depression.

This mental illness is also the focus of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) 2017 World Health Day, which is designed to prompt action and advocacy around an important public health topic. With its tagline, “Depression: let’s talk,” the WHO aims to remove the stigma from depression and encourage people to look for and find help. The WHO understands the impact that depression can have on communities, and it intends to work with public health partners to shine particular light on this illness’s effect on adolescents, women of childbearing age, and seniors.

Anxiety and Public Health

Depression is linked with a higher risk for anxiety and many other mental health issues.

As the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders together have the biggest effect on the health of Americans. These mental illnesses have a negative impact on the lifespan and productivity of the average person, but SAMHSA and other public health organizations are leading initiatives to provide better knowledge of and treatment for anxiety and other mental health issues.

For instance, research has already shown that parts of the nation that earn higher incomes also tend to have better mental health. This indicates that communities benefit greatly from access to high-quality, science-based health care services. As SAMHSA explains, the newly funded National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory will continue to provide public health professionals with opportunities to study the effects of anxiety and other mental illnesses and to test innovative solutions.

Suicide Prevention on a Community Level

Many mental illnesses can lead to an increased chance of suicide, especially in high-income countries. With approximately 800,000 deaths from suicide each year and countless more attempts, this is a growing problem. According to the WHO, suicide is the second most common cause of death in teenagers and young adults age 15 to 29.

Suicide also affects citizens of low- and middle-income nations. As the WHO reports, over three-quarters of suicides around the world in 2015 happened in these countries.

Recent research by the WHO and numerous smaller public health organizations has begun to provide details about some of the groups at highest risk of suicide, including refugees, members of the LGBT community, and people with indigenous ancestry.

Like many mental illnesses, suicide still suffers from a stigma. That means public health officials are faced with the challenge of identifying people who need help and encouraging them to get the assistance they need. While the WHO has recommended a number of prevention tips, additional data collection and tracking from public health organizations around the globe can drastically improve suicide prevention and education.

Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Health

Mental health is often discussed in the context of adult health care, but it remains a substantial problem for children and adolescents, too. As the WHO reports, up to 20 percent of children and teenagers around the globe experience mental illnesses, and neuropsychiatric conditions are the most common cause of disability in adolescents.

While the WHO has committed to improving advocacy and mental health services for children and adolescents in underserved communities, this may not be enough to tackle the issue. SAMHSA has instituted an annual awareness day for pediatric mental health, complete with social media and outreach tools to increase understanding. The organization also provides educational materials to help young adults, families, and caregivers recognize signs of mental illness in children.

Finding a Path Forward

In the U.S., public health specialists have numerous avenues to become involved in advocating for mental health awareness and improving treatments for and prevention of these issues. For instance, one of the objectives of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Healthy People 2020 initiative is improving mental health care access for children. This initiative also aims to provide more depression screening services and increase the employment rate among people with serious mental illnesses.

In 2017, increased federal funding for addressing mental health issues can also enable public health professionals to take part in expanded research and treatment programs. From increased access to early intervention programs to expanded access in underserved communities, public health officials can continue to make strides to address this important issue.

Earning an Online Master of Public Health degree can open the door for you to address mental health concerns across the nation or around the world. Visit Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California to learn more about this degree program and how you can contribute to the conversation on mental illness and public health.

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