“Total health” includes both physical and mental health. The Surgeon General’s landmark report on mental health in 1999 raised awareness about the inter-connectedness of mind and body, of physical and mental health. That reality has been validated ever since. However, mental health and addressing mental health-related problems are often under-emphasized.
CDC recognizes that the mental health of individuals in the community is a vital component of public health and that public health cannot be adequately addressed without also addressing mental health. Therefore, CDC is working on the public health issues related to mental health.
The burden of mental illness is much greater among populations affected by war, violent conflict, and disasters, as seen in CDC’s work in humanitarian emergencies including those in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, and the tsunami in Thailand.
Among noncommunicable diseases in the population, neuropsychiatric disorders account for a similar burden of illness as cardiovascular disease or cancer. The list of mental health problems is well known if not always understood by most people—depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, bipolar depression, and dementia.
Mental health problems can lead to sad and all too tangible real-world results. Worldwide, nearly one million people die each year from suicide. Suicide, in fact, is the third leading cause of death among young people.
All of this is why CDC works to improve—and protect—mental health in individuals in the community.
Additionally, deployed CDC staff, CDC responders, and aid workers are at risk for mental illness and other psychological consequences. The work we do can be very challenging and stressful. Excellent support from the organization and the home front can help aid workers and local staff function better under difficult conditions. During the training that CDC’s Emergency Response and Recovery Branch organized in Jordan for staff working in the Syria crisis, I was talking about different ways aid workers can manage stress. One of the Syrian health care workers mentioned that as a way of coping, they would organize a small concert and in order not to feel guilty that they were taking some time off, the proceeds of the concert would be used to help the victims of the conflict.
While CDC’s public health work on mental health issues may not be widely known, CDC is uniquely positioned to provide leadership on the public health aspects of mental health. In fact, CDC is well positioned to provide leadership in the epidemiology, surveillance, and research of global mental health and to detect and identify mental health in emergencies, disasters, and outbreaks that may have important negative psychological consequences (e.g., Ebola, SARS) or may have significant co-morbidity with mental illness (e.g., HIV/AIDS).
Ha Young Lee and I, as mental health staff in the CDC Center for Global Health’s Emergency Response and Recovery Branch, are currently reviewing CDC’s public health-related mental health activities in Atlanta and overseas. By mapping out CDC’s current public health-related mental health programs and activities, we will be better positioned to lay out a comprehensive and strategic plan to move the global mental health agenda forward at CDC.
And that will bring us closer to bringing full health, both mentally and physically, to people around the world who desperately need it.