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Study: Mental Illness Is As Much Of A Global Threat As Infectious Diseases


The World Health Organization is expanding its ambition. The U.N. organization is best known for responding to outbreaks of Ebola or the Zika virus. Now it wants to focus on problems that grab fewer headlines but that are much more widespread - depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. We're going to talk about this with Dr. Shekhar Saxena, who oversees the WHO's efforts on mental health and substance abuse. Welcome to the program, sir.

SHEKHAR SAXENA: Good morning, Steve, and thank you for getting me on the program.

INSKEEP: What makes mental illness a global threat?

SAXENA: Many things. But to begin with, mental illnesses are common in every country - rich or poor - and they cause a lot of debt and a lot of disability. That's what makes it important.

INSKEEP: OK, and what can the WHO do about that?

SAXENA: The WHO has always kept mental health as a priority. And we are organizing a meeting to attract more attention on mental health. We believe that all countries need to pay more attention to mental health. And when it comes to mental health, all countries are developing countries.

INSKEEP: Now, this is really interesting because when you say development, I think of building roads or power grids. You're saying that a network to attack depression or anxiety, that is just part of a country's development and should be, anyway, as well.

SAXENA: That's correct. Human resources are the most important resources for any country's development. And unless we have mentally healthy population, which can devote its energies and intellect to the economic development of the country, you are missing a whole lot of development potential. That's what we are talking about.

INSKEEP: How big is the gap between rich and poor countries when it comes to treatment options for people who have a mental health issue?

SAXENA: There is a large gap. There are countries which are in high-income range where there is a psychiatrist for every 2,000 people. And there are other countries - in Africa, Asia, also in Latin America - where there is one mental health worker for 1 million or more population.

INSKEEP: I'm just going to stop you on that number. You're telling me that there are countries who have 1,000 times more mental health professionals than other countries on a per capita basis.

SAXENA: That's correct. There are some countries where there is a population of 19 million and just three psychiatrists.

INSKEEP: What does it cost the world economy to not deal with people's depression, anxiety or other mental health issues?

SAXENA: Just depression and anxiety cause a trillion dollar worth of loss every year. And this is a trillion with a T. And unfortunately, most countries in the world are ignoring this. Our question is not whether you can afford to treat mental illnesses. The question is, can you afford not to do that? Because you are incurring a lot of loss.

INSKEEP: How do you get mental health services to a world where 60 million people are refugees, many of them on the move?

SAXENA: That's an important question. And our figures suggest that there is a 50 to hundred-percent rise in depression and anxiety amongst people who have to migrate forcibly, people who are refugees. And if we take care of their psychosocial and mental health needs, these people adjust better, adjust more quickly and can become productive members of society much earlier.

INSKEEP: Dr. Shekhar Saxena works for the World Health Organization, which wants to expand its focus on mental health issues. Thank you very much, sir.

SAXENA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.