Latimer: Inequality in mental health care

There are many people in the world who have virtually no way of accessing a mental health care professional.

A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights a stark inequality in mental health care around the world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, mental health care is very difficult to access in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Nearly half the people in the world live in countries where there is only one psychiatrist for every 100,000 people. Comparatively, in wealthier nations it is more common to have one psychiatrist for every 2,000 people.

In addition to limited available resources, there may be difficult travel conditions, extreme poverty, military conflict, or a natural disaster.

It is easy to see there are many who would have virtually no way of accessing a mental health care professional.

Although media reports tend to focus attention on physical needs in developing or war-torn countries, mental health needs are also great.

Worldwide, about one in 10 people experience a mental illness but only one per cent of the global health workforce is treating these conditions—leaving vast numbers of people to suffer on their own.

In its report, the WHO says more investment in mental health care is needed to address this inequality.

Interestingly, it also recommended increased investment in richer countries like Canada. Although the ratio of psychiatrists to population is more appropriate in wealthier nations, this report suggests too many resources are being used on in-patient care while there is not enough for community care measures.

This is certainly true when I look at the care available in our province. I have written several times about the difficulty many people have in accessing community services and the lack of coordination between services. A well-resourced and coordinated approach could improve this a lot.

The WHO report also stressed a need to increase resources during times of economic crisis when rates of depression and suicide tend to increase.

This is not surprising since stress is a key trigger for many mental health conditions. When a person already living in an impoverished nation with very little in terms of a social safety net is in a mental health crisis, the results are often tragic for the individual, their family and community.

Similarly, in wealthier nations such as ours, untreated mental illness is devastating and places a huge burden on our society.

We have a long way to go before people around the world can safely access quality mental health care. We must continue to advocate for targeted and coordinated resources as well as reduced stigma surrounding these conditions.

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