Mental health advocate explains community-based approach to treating mental illness

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In the TedTalk below, mental health care advocate Vikram Patel explains his simple solution to the shortage of mental health professionals. In developing countries in particular, the lack of mental health treatment is a high-impact issue, and a large life expectancy gap exists between people with mental illness and people without. According to Patel, “Mental illnesses are amongst the leading causes of disability around the world,” with depression alone being the third leading cause. Patel states that, “The World Health Organization estimates that there are nearly four to five hundred million people living on our tiny planet who are affected by a mental illness,” yet that the vast majority of these impacted individuals do not receive the necessary and life-changing care. Patel’s solution is based on the notion of community empowerment, and employing already-existing human resources to address a need, instead of waiting for a mental health specialist who may never arrive. He explains that, “The idea is, when you’re short of specialized health care professionals, use whoever’s available in the community. Train them to provide a range of health care interventions.” This idea, also known as ‘task-shifting’ came from the practice of teaching ordinary people in rural areas how to conduct necessary medical procedures, such as delivering a baby, when there were no doctors present. Patel wanted to attempt something similar in regards to treating mental illness. He found that when villagers in rural Uganda were trained in delivering interpersonal psychotherapy for depression, their village had higher recovery rates than in control villages. If implemented on a broader scale, this solution has the potential to greatly address the lack of mental health care. As Patel concludes, “For me, task-shifting is the ultimate example of the democratization of medical knowledge, and therefore medical power.”

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