News / Health

WHO: Treatment for Mental Health Inadequate and Under-funded

A researcher holds a human brain (file photo)
A researcher holds a human brain (file photo)
Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization is calling on governments to increase services for people suffering from mental, neurological and substance use disorders. A report released to coincide with World Mental Health Day, which falls on October 10, finds countries all over the world spend very little on the treatment of mental illness.

The World Health Organization’s “Mental Health Atlas 2011” surveys 184 countries. It finds one in four people will require mental health care at some point in their lives. Yet, globally, less than $3 per capita per year is spent on mental health. And, in poor countries, that figure is as low as 25 cents.  

In addition to the problem of under-investment, WHO’s director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Shekhar Saxena, says low and middle-income countries have very few mental health professionals.

“To give you some examples, there are countries in Africa, which have a population of nine million, having only one psychiatrist and, in Asia, countries having 29 million people with only two psychiatrists. This is obviously extremely inadequate to look after any mental health needs in the country. The difference between the number of psychiatrists per 100,000 population in low-income countries versus high-income countries is 150-fold, which is enormous,” said Saxena.  

WHO reports the majority of people in the world do not receive treatment for mental illness. Figures show up to 50 percent of people suffering from mental disorders in Europe and North America do not receive treatment, and up to 85 percent of people in developing countries do not receive treatment.  

The report says governments spend most of the money designated for mental health on long-term care at psychiatric hospitals. It says today, nearly 70 percent of mental health spending goes to mental institutions.  

Dr. Saxena tells VOA this is a very inefficient use of scarce resources. He says the money would be better spent in treating mental illness at the primary care level rather than in expensive hospital care, which serves relatively few people.

“We believe that training primary care providers, general doctors, general nurses, medical assistants as well as health workers will be the right way to go. And, the program assists countries to provide training to these professionals and equip them with the knowledge and skills to identify and treat the majority of these problems. Obviously, they cannot treat all the problems. There is a system of referral by which the specialists can see fewer patients, but much of the burden can be handled by the primary care,” said Saxena.  

WHO's Mental Health Atlas provides information on depression - the leading cause of disability worldwide, on psychotic conditions, including schizophrenia and bipolar disease, and on neurological disorders such as epilepsy and dementia.

The survey finds people with mental illness and their families are victims of human rights abuses, discrimination and stigmatization. And this, the study says, often discourages people with these conditions from seeking help.

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