Science & Diplomacy: U.S. Must Help Build Global Response to Mental Illness

By the end of this decade, depression may rank just behind ischemic heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide. The ominous statistic is just one sign of a global mental health crisis that the world's governments have been unwilling to address, according to an editorial in the AAAS quarterly Science & Diplomacy.

Governments, NGOs, philanthropies and health systems must attack the burden of mental illness in the same way that they have focused their efforts on global communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, writes Vaughan C. Turekian, the quarterly's editor-in-chief and AAAS Chief International Officer; Allen Moore, a senior advisor at the Stimson Center; and Mark M. Rasenick, distinguished professor of physiology and psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The United States should take a leading role in bringing mental illness into the nexus of health and diplomacy that has proven successful in confronting other diseases, they say. If the U.S. does not address mental illness worldwide, it could see little progress on its global development goals and may be forced to confront increasing amounts of political instability and threats to its national security.

Western Europe has one psychiatrist per 10,000 people, while Africa has one for every 390,000 people.

The humanitarian, political, and economic costs of mental illness are staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that mental illness represents 14 % of the total global burden of disease. About 900,000 people complete suicide each year. Noncommunicable diseases will cost the global economy $47 trillion over the next 20 years, and one-third of those losses can be attributed to mental illnesses.

Developing countries suffer disproportionately from mental illness, with their citizens additionally exposed to the traumas of war, hunger, homelessness, and natural disaster. In these countries, effective treatments are "especially difficult where there is a need for extensive, individualized interactions with trained personnel, often in cross-cultural settings," the authors write.

Western Europe, for instance, has one psychiatrist per 10,000 people, while Africa has one for every 390,000 people.

Turekian, Moore, and Rasenick suggest that the U.S. and others should fund multi-year mental health initiatives in places like Syrian refugee camps, as well as communities struggling to establish themselves on the edge of conflicts in the Democratic Republic and South Sudan. "Regrettably, we live in an environment filled with many such "target-rich" possibilities," they conclude.

Science & Diplomacy is published by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. Other articles in the June 2014 issue include:


"The UK Response to Fukushima and Anglo-Japanese Relations"
Robin W. Grimes, Yuki Chamberlain, and Atsushi Oku
The UK government's response to the March 2011 nuclear accident in Japan relied on scientific advice and communication, and it demonstrated the central role of science advisory systems and benefited the broader bilateral relationship.


"Stability and Peace in the Arctic Ocean through Science Diplomacy"
Paul Arthur Berkman
International stability in the Arctic has yet to be globally recognized and a process of ongoing and inclusive dialogue about Arctic issues, which are linked to sustainable development, is needed to promote cooperation and peace.


"A Trilateral Partnership for Supporting Research and Relationships"
Killian Halpin, Kerri-Ann Jones, and Fabian Monds
The U.S.-Ireland R&D Partnership relies on well-balanced and clearly defined collaborations between Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the United States to contribute to positive relationships and scientific advances.


"Women as Agents of Positive Change in Biosecurity"
Kathleen Danskin and Dana Perkins
Managing biological threats requires a multifaceted, holistic approach, which benefits from greater gender integration. The U.S. government can better empower women in biosecurity by employing specific indicators to track performance.


"Epidemics and Opportunities for U.S.-Cuba Collaboration"
Marguerite Jiménez
Renowned Polish-American vaccine developer Albert Sabin showed that scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union and Cuba against infectious disease can serve public health if political barriers are lowered, lessons for current U.S.-Cuba relations.


"Protecting the Sargasso Sea"
David E. Shaw
The expansive nature of the Sargasso Sea raises special considerations for conservation efforts that require the cooperation of national governments and nongovernmental organizations, which may provide a road map for conducting other conservation efforts in the high seas.