Advocating for Mental Health on a Global Stage

It’s been more than two years since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, and the emotional burden still lingers. In the past two years, we have funded more than 100 grants totaling more than $2 million for programs that promote the mental well-being of survivors.

While communicable diseases such as cholera and HIV place a substantial burden on global health, these diseases represent just a portion of the medical needs and receive a significant percentage of charitable funding. The emphasis on communicable disease overshadows the burden of non-communicable diseases -- especially mental health. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, the most burdensome disease in the world today is depression -- especially in areas affected by disaster or poverty. Yet mental health remains overlooked and underfunded in emergency response and health interventions alike.

AmeriCares has not overlooked this need.

It’s been more than two years since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, and the emotional burden still lingers. In the past two years, we have funded more than 100 grants totaling more than $2 million for programs that promote the mental well-being of survivors. A number of these grants support community directed initiatives -- temporary, smaller scale projects designed to bring residents out and connect them to other survivors through communal activities.

One such initiative, a community gardening project, supported the planting of more than 300 varieties of flowers by residents throughout the grounds of the Ohashi temporary housing community. Not only did the project enhance the physical environment, it reduced loneliness and isolation and helped establish friendships among residents. Initiatives like this also restore a sense of community to villages and towns that suffered immense physical destruction. This pride and community are an integral aspect of Japanese culture.

Here at home, the need for programs addressing mental health issues was clearly evident in aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. To date, AmeriCares has provided more than $1 million in funding for domestic mental health projects – most recently to benefit Sandy survivors. One grant, to the Pediatric Disaster Coalition in Partnership with Maimonides Hospital, trained 58 providers in pediatric disaster mental health to adequately assess and provide care for children. The grant aims to reduce symptoms related to children’s exposure to the traumatic experience, while enhancing their skills to manage current and future stressors.

Unlike communicable diseases which have clearly recognizable symptoms, mental health issues are more difficult to diagnose and treat. While an MRI or blood test can often quickly reveal physical infection, diagnosing mental health disorders are much more subjective, and require more intensive examination. Treatment is neither a simple distribution of medication or resources, but entails complex and highly individualized care, sometimes spanning longer timeframes.

By funding both community-directed programs and caregiver training programs in Japan and in the U.S., AmeriCares is providing both immediate and lasting mental health support for disaster survivors. These are just two examples of our commitment to deliver help that may not otherwise receive attention or funding—but is desperately needed.