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Mental Health is Part of Everything We Do in Development

Written by Hannah Loryman (Sightsavers)

February 27, 2020

Mental health is everybody’s business

Everyone has mental health, and mental health conditions can affect anyone. This alone should make mental health relevant to all of us working in international development.

But dig a little deeper, and you will find the case is even more compelling. The people we are trying to reach with our development programmes are often those who are most likely to be affected by mental health conditions or experience discrimination based on their mental health.

While the causes of mental health conditions are not clear-cut, there is a strong link between living in poverty and having a mental health condition. Poor housing, inequities in access to education, and violence can all contribute to poor mental health. Environmental factors such as disasters and climate change can also play a role. That means that for those working in fragile and emergency situations, the need is likely to be higher.

Going beyond health

Often the starting point when thinking about mental health is health care. Ensuring that health systems can provide the right care is crucial, and there is still a huge gap globally. But the links with international development go much further. For example:

  • Women and girls with mental health conditions are particularly at risk from violence. Those who have experienced violence are more likely to develop a mental health condition.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people worldwide, and the leading cause among adolescent girls. Mental health conditions often emerge in adolescence. This is an important life stage for building young people’s ability to cope with mental health conditions.
  • People with mental health conditions often experience huge levels of stigma and discrimination, which restricts their ability to participate equally, access services and live fulfilled lives. Discrimination is often written into the legal frameworks of countries. For example, 36% of UN Member States deny people with psychosocial disabilities the vote.

These are just a few examples of the relationship between mental health and other issues in international development. But if you take a few moments to reflect on your own sector, you will likely come up with many more.

Leaving no-one behind

There is already good work being done in mental health and development. But it is often neglected and seen as something that only specialists should work on. This is hopefully changing – the Sustainable Development Goals recognise mental health and disability (including psychosocial disability) across multiple goals. The commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ places emphasis on reaching the people who are most excluded and disadvantaged.

Recognising mental health as a cross-cutting development issue is an important way of ensuring that we are reaching people who are most in need. The barriers and discrimination that people with mental health conditions face mean they are less likely to access development programmes. Programmes that exclude people with mental health conditions will not be reaching those who are often most in need of them and are not fulfilling the call to leave no one behind.

Adding a specific mental health component to a development programme can mean that the original objective is more easily achieved. For example, there is evidence that improving mental health increases people’s adherence to HIV treatment and that improving the mental health of mothers improves outcomes for their babies.

In some cases, development programmes might be positively impacting on people’s mental health, but it’s not known because it’s not measured. This means that we are losing out on the opportunity to demonstrate “what works” in mental health.

New guide on mental health

We know that working on mental health is not always simple. It is a topic that people often find difficult to broach – perhaps out of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. That is why we have launched a new topic guide on mental health, specifically for development professionals. It breaks down the subject and gives clear and practical advice on what to do, where to start – and crucially, where to find out more – across different development issues including youth, social protection, health, gender, humanitarian action and disability. We hope that this topic guide can help you gain the confidence to get started!

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