Suicide is the most extreme and visible symptom of the larger mental health emergency we are so far failing to adequately address. Stigma, fear and lack of understanding compound the suffering of those affected and prevent the bold action that is so desperately needed and so long overdue.
One in four of us will have to deal with a mental health condition at some point in our lives, and if we’re not directly affected, someone we care for is likely to be. Our young people are particularly vulnerable, with suicide being the second leading cause of death globally among 15-29 year olds and half of all mental illness beginning by the age of 14.
Yet despite the universality of the issue, we struggle to talk about it openly or to offer adequate care or resources. Within families and communities, we often remain silenced by a shame that tells us that those with mental illness are somehow less worthy or at fault for their own suffering.
Instead of treating those facing mental health conditions with the compassion we would offer to someone with a physical injury or illness, we ostracize, blame and condemn. In too many places support services are non-existent and those with treatable conditions are criminalized – literally chained up in inhumane conditions, cut off from the rest of society without hope.
Mental health currently receives less than 1% of global aid. Domestic financing on prevention, promotion and treatment is similarly low. At present, every nation in the world is a “developing” country when it comes to mental health.
Such paltry investment is not just bad for individuals, it is destructive for communities and undermines economies. Mental health conditions cost the world $2.5tn a year, a figure that is expected to balloon to $6tn by 2030 unless we take action.
We can no longer afford to be silenced by stigma or stymied by misguided ideas that portray these conditions as a matter of weakness or moral failing. Research shows there is a fourfold return on investment for every dollar spent on treating depression and anxiety, the most common mental health conditions, making spending on the issue a great investment for both political leaders and employers, in addition to generating savings in the health sector.
The time has come for us all, collectively, to tackle the causes and symptoms of mental illness, and provide care for those who suffer from it. You don’t have to be an international artist or the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) to make an impact.
We can all help to build communities that understand, respect and prioritize mental wellness. We can all learn how to offer support to loved ones going through a difficult time. And we can all be a part of a new movement – including people who have faced mental illness themselves – to call on governments and industry to put mental health at the top of their agendas.