Op-Ed: Youth and mental illness: A cohesive strategy is needed

Posted Aug 13, 2014 by Kavelle Christie
In celebration of this year’s International Youth Day observed on Tuesday, August 12, mental health was rightfully placed at the forefront of discussions.
United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon holds a press conference with President of Iraq's autonomous K...
United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon holds a press conference with President of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani (unseen) after a meeting in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on July 24, 2014
Safin Hamed, AFP/File
In his Youth Day message UN-Secretary General , Ban Ki-Moon stated, “The United Nations wants to help lift the veil that keeps young people locked in a chamber of isolation and silence. The barriers can be overwhelming particularly in countries where the issue of mental health is ignored and there is lack of investment in mental health services.”
This also comes on the heels of the suicide of comedic actor, Robin Williams. Though not in his youth, the tragedy highlights the importance of discussing mental illness and the caustic stigma — or veil, as Ban Ki-Moon rightfully called it — associated with mental illness.
As evidence of this stigma, fellow actor Todd Bridges who played Willis in the 1980s television series Diff’rent Strokes, publicly blamed Williams for his death and called it “a very selfish act”. Bridges has since then issued a series of apologies, but it certainly hasn’t removed the harsh paroxysm of shock and pain from some readers’ minds. Instead, we are left with the sad realization that with circa 500 days to achieve the specified Millenium Development Goals, great strides still have to be made regarding mental health, proper access to care and sadly, discrimination.
According to UNICEF, approximately 20 percent of the world’s youth experience mental health problems annually; this equates to more than 280 million young people across the globe who more often than not suffer in silence.
On a macro level it may seem like a drop in the bucket, however, as a microcosm far more troubling statistics prevail.
For example, in the United States mental health services have been significantly slashed by a number of states, while jails and homeless shelters have become the catch nets for many persons suffering from mental illnesses. In a 2014 USA Today article, Cost of not caring: Nowhere to go, Robert Golver, executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors said, “States cut $5 billion in mental health services from 2009 to 2012. In the same period, the country eliminated at least 4, 500 public psychiatric hospital beds — nearly 10 percent of the total supply.”
This is particularly significant because mental illness has far-reaching consequences such as suicide, especially without adequate access to healthcare. According to Mental Health America, mental illness is one of the leading causes of suicide and “most people who die by suicide have an emotional or mental disorder of which the most common is depression. [In fact], 30%-70% of suicide victims suffer from major depression or bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder [and] 30, 000 die by suicide each year [while] an additional 500, 000 Americans attempt suicide annually.”
The prevailing stigma associated with mental illness and insufficient/nonexistent health care becomes far more complex in poorer countries across the world. This therefore makes it increasingly impossible for young people to maximize their potential and contribute to the socioeconomic infrastructure of their countries.
A paradigm shift needs to occur over the next few years: One which encompasses a cohesive strategy with the participation of government agencies, NGOs and basic support systems like friends and family members. The latter also requires extensive public health outreach programs and a number of other resources to educate the average Joe about how to care for, listen and talk to loved ones who suffer from any form of mental illness.
If not, years from now we will still be having mere discussions about ‘lifting the veil’ while health care programs targeting mental illness remain insufficiently funded; persons remain largely uneducated about mental illness and the consequences of stigmatization, but most importantly, those who need help will continue to hide in the shadows of dejection.