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'Mental Health First Aid' for All Is a Goal of Annual Observance


A man suffering from mental illness sits chained on a bed in his room inside his family home in Curug Sulanjana village in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, March 23, 2016.

A man suffering from mental illness sits chained on a bed in his room inside his family home in Curug Sulanjana village in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, March 23, 2016.

Health care professionals and public health advocates worldwide are celebrating World Mental Health Day Monday with an effort to promote awareness of mental-health issues as a factor in first-aid treatment plans.

Mental illness does not discriminate among ethnic, cultural or religious groups, says the president of the World Psychiatric Association, Dr. Dinesh Bhugra, but political and social crises throughout the world can aggravate and intensify anxiety and stress. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are among those whose mental health is particularly at risk, he notes.

"Psychological first aid" is the theme of this year's observance, which the World Health Organization says addresses a need for both psychological assistance and social support for those who are in a crisis or are suffering from acute distress.

"When terrible things happen in our communities," WHO says, "we can reach out a helping hand to those who are affected."

Promoting mental health

This is the 25th annual observance of World Mental Health Day by the global organization that has been working for more than 70 years to promote mental and emotional health and ensure access to appropriate care for people throughout the world. This year, the World Federation for Mental Health aims to expand the definition of first aid beyond physical health.

WFMH, a private group separate from WHO, gathers and coordinates financial resources from organizations and individuals in more than 150 countries, to help reduce the global personal, social, and economic burden associated with mental disorders and emotional ill-health. One of its members is the national mental-health federation of South Africa, a country that ranks near the top of lists of "most stressed-out nations."

"High stress levels have been linked to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also lead to substance abuse. In severe cases, these problems can lead to a person becoming suicidal," said South African researcher Lourens Schlebusch, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The deputy director of the South African Federation of Mental Health, Leon de Beer, said the notion of mental-health first aid is still a bit foreign, so his organization is conducting a month-long campaign focusing on all patients' dignity, and for appropriate mental-health care to preserve life, provide help, promote recovery and provide comfort.

Providing help

One in every four persons worldwide is believed to experience some form of mental illness at some point in life, and the world federation said this year that the need is crucial to offer help to those "developing a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis."

FILE - Patients are treated in the Mental Health and Drug Addicts' Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 17, 2016. After almost 40 years of conflict and crisis, experts say the vast majority of the Afghan population suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

FILE - Patients are treated in the Mental Health and Drug Addicts' Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 17, 2016. After almost 40 years of conflict and crisis, experts say the vast majority of the Afghan population suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

World Psychiatric Association president Bhugra also is a professor of mental health and diversity at King’s College London. "People both in the workplace and at home need to develop skills to provide mental health first aid the same way people do for physical health,” he said, by "helping people identify stress ... [and] early stages of anxiety and depression."

Caregivers then can help patients patients select useful support and treatment methods.

WPA launched a "bill of rights for people with mental illness," last month, which asks governments to meet certain standards for patients' services and rights. “It’s a global initiative,” Bhugra said, that 32 organizations worldwide have already signed on to support.

Workplace pressures are a particular problem in stress-filled South Africa, mental-health advocate de Beers said. “We’ve had a massive influx of inquiries from corporates," he said, asking the national federation "to come in and do mental health awareness talks about elevated stress levels.”

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