Sometimes it takes a public figure to drive home the suffering an illness can cause. This time, it was Kjell Magne Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway, who shared his personal struggle with depression at the Sixth World Conference on the Promotion of Mental Health and Prevention of Mental and Behavioral Disorders, co-hosted by EDC.
“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 support from friends, family, and the public. Bondevik received the help he needed and returned to office. Years later, he was re-elected.
Following the 40-country assembly, EDC is joining forces with the World Federation for Mental Health and others to tap that kind of groundswell and place mental health much higher on the world health agenda. Specifically, leaders are urging that mental health be included on the September 2011 agenda of the first U.N. High-Level Summit on Non-Communicable Disease.
“Mental health hasn’t traditionally been understood to be a global priority and therefore doesn’t receive the resources that other critical health concerns do,” says EDC’s Jerry Reed. “If we are successful, we’ll see more creativity, resources, and training applied to reducing the burden of mental illness.”
Promoting mental health isn’t only about treating patients, says Reed, who heads the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) at EDC. “It’s about addressing poverty, education, and access to health care; training professionals; and promoting a world in which, no matter where you are or what your situation is, you have the greatest chance to flourish.”
Former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, a conference attendee, also puts a human face on the toll of mental illness. His 21-year-old son Garrett died by suicide in 2004. That event led Smith to fight for passage of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which allocates funds to help develop and implement early intervention and prevention strategies. The act also authorized SPRC.
Other experts at the conference—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 spoke to the importance of advancing mental health promotion and prevention.
Many in the field note that despite the fact that one in four people are living with a mental health disorder, mental health promotion is often upstaged by physical health promotion. They also acknowledge the limited prevention and treatment available for indigenous people who have faced trauma, those living with poverty, survivors of war and natural disasters, and those with substance abuse problems.
“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.”
“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.”
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. EDC has led many efforts in suicide prevention, including work with schools to prevent substance abuse and violence among Native youth and efforts to improve the mental health and well-being of teachers. EDC has several active programs in substance abuse and violence prevention, anti-bullying, and health promotion.
Originally published on May 2, 2011