Mental disorders are on the rise

Some 450 million people the world over suffer from some form of mental or neurological disorder, with depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, retardation and disorders of childhood and adolescence among the most common. At any given moment, 10 percent of the population may suffer from any kind of psychological, neurological and behavioral disorder, or one in five people examined by primary healthcare doctors. Last month (Wednesday, October 23) saw the official presentation of the Greek edition of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2001 report on mental health. Head of the mental health section, Benedetto Saraceno, said that 25 percent of human beings will develop, at some point during their lives, one or more mental or behavioral disorders, while one in four families have at least one member that is a mental patient, with all the consequences that this implies, especially due to the stigma attached and the attendant discrimination. And 30 percent of all applications declaring a person «unfit» (which means forced unemployment) are due to psychological and neurological disorders, with depression foremost among these. Depression, in fact, currently affects 120 million people and will be the second most common affliction in the world in 2020. This disorder’s most tragic outcome is suicide, which claims 1 million people a year, with another 10 to 20 million attempted suicides. The world average for the number of people that attempt to commit suicide annually is 15 per 100,000 – and is as high as 80 in some countries. Fortunately, Greece has a relatively low suicide rate, as opposed to Russia, where suicides are virtually an epidemic. Despite the fact that there are cheap, effective cures for the majority of mental and neurological disorders, most patients in the world lack access to them. For example, 75 percent of epileptics are able to live a totally normal life with treatment, but only 1 percent of patients in Africa have access to it. In the USA, fewer than 30 percent of severely depressed people receive treatment. Mental and behavioral disorders are a heavy burden on the public health system – accounting for some 12 percent of all illnesses worldwide – but mental health budgets in the majority of countries are often less than 1 percent of total health expenditure. At the presentation, Wolfgang Rutz, head of WHO’s regional office for Europe, focused on the variations in psychosocial factors that affect the population’s health in the countries on the continent. He pointed out that in Eastern European countries, which have been undergoing a period of sociopolitical transition over the last decade, the rates of suicide and of stress-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases have risen sharply. Finally, Minister of Health and Social Welfare Costas Stefanis outlined the changes taking place in the area of mental health in Greece, and the attempt to follow WHO’s guidelines more closely. Specifically, he referred to structures being put in place that will enable the gradual transfer of mental health services from psychiatric hospitals to psychiatric departments in hospitals, mental health centers, and the like. Stress hits children in Greece One in five Greek children suffers from some psychological or behavioral disorder, mostly caused by family stress. More frequent in older children and in urban areas, these afflictions chiefly affect children from poor families or those whose parents have a low educational level. Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics Nikolaos Matsaniotis says that Greek children today are on the receiving end of numerous stress-causing stimuli from the family, school and society, with the result that they develop behavioral and mental disorders that are a growing pediatric problem. According to Matsaniotis, factors giving rise to such disorders are poor or bad communication between parents and children, disparaging a child especially by comparison with others, overdiscipline, absolute freedom (which differs little from emotional neglect), and rewarding the child only when it displays the desired behavior. Moreover, parental behavior aimed at restricting food intake – in order to prevent child obesity – even at the premature age of 5 years old, leads to a negative self-image. Anxiety in children, as in adults, is often made corporeal: Stomach pains, leg aches, headaches and vomiting often are psychosomatic manifestations. In older children, anxiety can take the form of hysteria and manifest itself as hysterical blindness, deafness and paralysis of limbs. In conclusion, Matsaniotis stressed the need for correct postgraduate training of all pediatricians in the area of child mental health.