Sometimes it takes a public figure to drive home the suffering a disease can cause. This time it was Kjell Magne Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway. He spoke at the Sixth World Conference on the Promotion of Mental Health and Prevention of Mental and Behavioral Disorders. The conference, co-hosted by EDC, was held in November in Washington, D.C.
“I was sad all the time. I was not able to get out of bed,” he said. By 1998, he felt ashamed and thought he wanted to step down from office.
But instead of resigning, Bondevik made a public announcement. He told the world he had been diagnosed with depression—something no other world leader had admitted before. What followed was a wave of extraordinary support from friends, family, and the public. Bondevik received the help he needed and returned to office. Years later, he was re-elected.
“It was a solid lesson on the importance of fighting the stigma around mental health,” he said.
Bondevik’s words echoed throughout many of the presentations given during the three-day conference by mental health researchers, practitioners, and advocates from more than 40 countries. The theme of the conference was Addressing Imbalances: Promoting Equity in Mental Health.
“With the recent economic crisis, global sensitivity about the impact on health and mental health has been heightened, especially for those who are often marginalized,” said EDC’s Jerry Reed. “Failing to address mental health challenges can be crippling to individuals, communities, and societies. When you address mental health through promotion, prevention, and proper treatment, people thrive and communities prosper.”
U.S. Senator Gordon Smith spoke about his 21-year-old son, Garrett, who died by suicide in 2004. According to Smith, the best way to eliminate the stigma is to “put a human face on a cause that affects too many humans.” His son’s death led Smith to fight for passage of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, signed in 2004, which allocates funds to help states, tribal groups, and colleges and universities develop and implement early intervention and prevention strategies to reduce suicide. The act also authorized a suicide prevention technical assistance center, which became the Suicide Prevention Resource Center located at EDC.
Other prominent experts—including Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Pamela Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; and Michael Kirby, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada—all are calling for mental health to be high on the international agenda.
“We need people to speak up about mental health the way that we have about breast cancer or AIDS,” said Kirby. “Without a mass movement, it will drift back into the shadows.”
Specifically, Dr. Eva Jane-Llopis, head of the Chronic Disease and Wellness Programme at the World Economic Forum, was one of many at the conference pressing for mental health to be placed on the September 2011 agenda of the first U.N. High-Level Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases. There, the General Assembly delegates will push for more attention to the socioeconomic impacts of tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy diets.
As the in-country host for the November conference, EDC’s experts detailed national strategies for suicide prevention, ways to work with schools to prevent substance abuse and violence among Native youth, and responses to the mental health and well-being of teachers.
Many in the field note that despite the fact that one in four people is living with a mental health disorder, mental health promotion is often upstaged by physical health promotion. Many acknowledge the limited prevention and treatment available for indigenous people who have faced trauma for generations, those living with poverty, survivors of war and natural disasters, and those with substance abuse problems.
Tanya Brown, the sister of Nicole Brown Simpson, shed more light on the need to promote mental health worldwide when she spoke about her own breakdown following Nicole’s murder in 1994 and her subsequent battle with substance abuse.
“After my sister’s death, I stuffed in all my emotions. In 2004, I found myself alone in my room with a bottle of pills in one hand and a bottle of wine in another. I seriously contemplated killing myself,” she recalled.
Instead, Brown got the help she needed.
“I haven’t touched a drink in seven months. I am a woman who has reclaimed my life,” she said. “But I am just one person with a story.”
Bondevik is another: “There are members of parliament, artists, sports champions all over the world that have stood up and shared their stories about dealing with mental illness,” said Bondevik. “The power of the narrative will help build the argument to put mental health on the international agenda.”
The Sixth World Conference on Mental Health was co-hosted by EDC, the World Federation for Mental Health, The Clifford Beers Foundation, and The Carter Center.
Originally published on January 14, 2011