A monthly report from The Carter Center

Carter Center convenes meeting on mental health with global women leaders

"`An unheralded crisis in world mental health' is how the Harvard report describes these devastating problems," said former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. "I look forward to working with leaders and experts from throughout respective regions of the world to determine the best courses of action to take in confronting these issues."

The report to which Mrs. Carter refers, "World Mental Health: Problems and Priorities in Low Income Countries," was recently published by the Department of Social Medicine of Harvard Medical School. Leon Eisenberg, a professor at Harvard and a member of The Carter Center Mental Health Task Force, was one of the principle authors of the report.

The result of two years of research by experts in more than 30 nations, this document is the first systemic attempt to survey the burden of suffering imposed by mental and behavioral health problems on low-income societies in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Its overall message: while basic physical health has improved worldwide in the last 50 years, mental health in certain low-income areas has either remained stagnant or has deteriorated.

In each of the regions studied, extensive poverty or economic stagnation has severely and negatively impacted the social and mental well-being of most populations. The report emphasizes that such states of poverty translate into hunger and malnutrition, inadequate living conditions, greater health risks, limited health care services, urban crowding and poor working conditions. Coping with such factors, in turn, often leads to serious states of depression and chronic stress, having a detrimental effect upon families and communities overall, but disproportionately upon women.

In response to these conditions, Mrs. Carter, a mental health advocate for more than 20 years, asked the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which consists of representatives from 38 governments, to add a full-day discussion on world mental health, especially that of women, to its annual meeting of health ministers in late September. The request was readily granted. Mrs. Carter has personally invited women leaders from throughout the Americas, most of whom are first ladies, to attend the meeting and to become members of the International Committee of Women Leaders for Mental Health, an organization Mrs. Carter established in 1992 to focus global attention on mental health-related issues. Among the 90 participants expected to attend, distinguished speakers at the Sept. 28 meeting will include several first ladies as well as health ministers.

At the meeting, attending women leaders will confer with health ministers of their individual countries and various experts from the mental health field. Together, they will consider four main objectives: identify coping strategies women use to manage multiple gender roles.; identify barriers that limit opportunities for women and their families in sustaining mental health; discuss successful efforts being undertaken to protect the mental health of both men and women; and propose areas of research and action related to women's mental health during their adolescent, reproductive and post-reproductive years. They will then work to determine courses of action most appropriate for the problems in their particular country. Upon returning home, each leader will be expected to implement the various strategies, such as expanding mental health services or concentrating on prevention programs.

"This meeting will build on the successes derived from women leaders' support of World Mental Health Day [Oct. 10] for the last three years to raise awareness about mental health and related issues," said John Gates, director of The Carter Center's Mental Health Program. "Sept. 28, however, will be the first time these leaders meet to discuss the impact of mental health issues upon women and to identify specific activities that can be pursued in respective countries. Our hope is that this meeting will be followed by similar initiatives in other regions of the world within the next few years."

Ann Carney is assistant communications coordinator at The Carter Center.

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