Gift of Life

People indisputably have contrasting views on life and how to use it. Some use life to build a loving family, whereas others use it to travel the world and savor its beauties. Some use it to amass great personal wealth, fame, and material possessions, and others dedicate their lives to serving others. I am not one to pass moral judgments on how one should use their life. But in spite of all of our differences, we should all agree that life is a beautiful gift. Regardless of how we choose to use our life, it should be something we enjoy. Unfortunately, not all people are able to enjoy life. Neuropsychiatric conditions plague people around the world. Many people are unable to pursue their goals or passions because they are debilitated by depression,schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other conditions. They are often unable to overcome their problems because they either lack access to mental health clinicians or are too afraid to seek help. We must reduce this huge treatment gap between those who have these conditions and those who actually receive treatment. There are many avenues of decreasing this gap – increased emphasis from governments, more R&D to develop cheaper medicines, more economic incentives for talented students to pursue careers in mental health, decrease of stigma against these health conditions, etc. I will discuss these specific ways to improve health outcomes in future posts. But first, I want to bring awareness to just how serious of a problem it is.

As the son of a physician and two Indian immigrants, I learned the value of medicine at an early age and saw first hand in India the many health, economic, and educational inequities in the world. Based on these prior experiences, I decided to pursue Economics, Public Policy, and Global Health at Duke. I believed that the combination of these classes should help teach me the most efficient way to maximize the gift of life amongst as many people as possible. You may wonder why I have chosen to write about mental health inadequacies. If I am seeking to attain efficiency in preserving the gift of life and decreasing health inequities around the world, surely problems such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, malaria, and TB are much more pressing than Neurosychiatric conditions. In reality,  we often severely underestimate the severity of the burden of mental health disorders around the world. According to a World Health Organization report, 25% of people in the world will be affected by mental health disorders in their lifetimes. In fact, mental health disorders account for 28% of DALY’s among non-communicable diseases. Lastly, more years of life are affected by mental health disorders than cardiovascular disease and cancer. In spite of the huge burden of mental health, there is a huge gap between the amount of people with mental disorders and those who are actually treated. In fact, two-thirds of people with mental disorders never even seek medical health for their disorders.

Why does such a huge treatment gap exist between those who need help and those who actually receive it, when it is so clearly a huge problem throughout the world?  One issue is a scarcity of professionals to tackle the problem. The WHO has estimated 1.18 million mental health professionals, including 55,000 psychiatrists, 628,000 nurses in mental health settings, and 493,000 psychosocial care providers are needed to treat mental disorders in 144 low- and middle-income countries. Another huge issue is that many governments do not have a focus on combating this problem. Over 40% of countries do not even have any type of mental health policy. The problem is simply ignored by policymakers in many of these countries. Finally, a huge stigma against mental health disorders exists in many places around the world. As a result, even those who have the resources to be treated for their disorders often refrain from doing so, for fear of the discrimination they will face.

Many of you who will follow my blog posts, share my desire to decrease health disparities around the world, allowing as many people as possible enjoy their gift of life. One of the most efficient ways of doing so is by increasing the emphasis of reducing and treating mental disorders. Before governments get out their pocketbooks and take this problem seriously (more than 33% of countries do not even spend 1% of their health budgets on mental health), we must lobby and convince our representatives that this is a serious problem that warrants much more attention. By raising awareness about this problem, we will see more serious measures taken by governments, more money invested into R&D, more talented students pursuing careers in mental health, and less people being stigmatized for their conditions. This in turn will lead to significantly better health outcomes in the future.

Shaunak Varma is a SISGI Group Program and Research Intern. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit


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