For World Mental Health Day: Is Mental Illness A First World Problem?

Today is World Mental Health Day and Psych Central is having a party to celebrate! Instead of bringing a plate to pass around, participants are posting articles for the event. Not one to miss out on a good party, here is my contribution:

It is easy to dismiss treatment for mental health problems as a luxury. Even in my typically American middle-class community in Western New York, people have to make hard decisions about what gets attention. Will it be renovations to an aging house, tuition for college or psychotherapy?

There is a tendency to put our mental health struggles on the back burner with the hope that things will get better by themselves. When they don’t, even educated, so-called sophisticated people take it as a personal failure. That causes us even more pain, more isolation, deeper mental illness.

Take that scenario and make it global, across cultures, across socio-economic strata, across level of industrial development. The same issues that prevent my neighbor (or me for that matter) from getting mental health treatment may be what keeps a young man in Sri Lanka from seeking help.

Mental illness is not just a first world problem. The Secretary General of the United Nations wrote:

“Poverty, unemployment, conflict and war all adversely affect mental health. In addition, the chronic, disabling nature of mental disorders often places a debilitating financial burden on individuals and households. Furthermore, individuals with mental health problems – and their families – endure stigma, discrimination and victimization, depriving them of their political and civil rights and constraining their ability to participate in the public life of their societies.”

What can we do to change things? By being part of the solution:

1. Let’s look at our own lives. Prioritize your and your family’s mental health by educating yourself and seeking the advice of a good mental health professional.

2. Let’s pay attention to how we may carelessly support stigmatizing, discrimination and bullying of those with mental health struggles.

3. Let law makers know you advocate adoption and promotion of mental health policies, laws and services that support comprehensive education, employment, housing and social services for people with mental disorders.

“If someone has a broken arm, you feel sorry for them. But when (the problem) is psychiatric, people don’t know how to react because they can’t see anything.

But just because you can’t see someone’s pain, it doesn’t mean they don’t need your care and support.”

~Samoan woman with bipolar disorder, 29 years old, Auckland, New Zealand


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  • Drat! I wish I’d known that October 10th was World Mental Health Day! Next year, I’ll try to keep better track….

    This is such an important issue. After surviving a heart attack, I learned from Mayo Clinic cardiologists that up to 65% of heart attack survivors experience some form of mental illness like depression or anxiety, yet fewer than 10% are appropriately identified. That’s a lot of silent suffering.

    For some of us, a life-altering cardiac event may bring the first incident ever of any type of mental health concern, so it feels like a double whammy: first, we’re trying desperately to adjust to the post-heart attack recuperation, and next, we don’t want to get out of bed, wash our hair, or certainly tell anybody how we’re feeling because of the profound stigma against mental illness.

    I wrote more on this at: “I’m Not Depressed!” and Other Ways We Deny the Stigma of Mental Illness After a Heart Attack” at

    Thanks for this post – hope you are enjoying a beautiful autumn.

    • Always a pleasure to hear from you, Carolyn. I found out about the World Mental Health Day when the day was just about over (depending on the time zone). We will both be better prepared next year.

      Even me, a psychologist, had to deal with my own prejudices when it came to mental illness. Years ago when I was suffering panic attacks I couldn’t believe they were stress related. Moi?! That episode taught me a lot about how nasty stigma can be, because it keeps even people who should know better from getting the help they need.

      Thank you for you work, for your comments and support. You are the best!


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