UMN expert: More global mental health and substance abuse research needed

February 4, 2016

In a recent review published in Nature, Mustafa al’Absi, Ph.D., director of the Duluth Medical Research Institute at the Medical School, Duluth campus, and other authors, outlined recommendations to shape the global mental health agenda. al’Absi is also a Masonic Cancer Center member.

“Mental health and substance abuse disorders have profound effects on overall health,” al’Absi said. “They are becoming a pressing global and local burden.”

In their review, al’Absi and authors cite that mental health and substance abuse disorders account for more than 20 percent of global years lived with disability (YLD), and depression specifically shoulders about 9 percent of all global YLDs.

While awareness for mental illness has increased, resources remain limited, and the prevalence of the diseases is great. The authors call for more action.

“There has been greater attention to developing new models to integrate mental health services into primary care settings, but there is a treatment gap in lower and middle-income countries,” al’Absi said. “This is particularly the case for substance abuse disorder.”

The article cites that an average of less than 3 percent of global public health resources are allocated to specific mental health care in those countries.

As those countries develop, mental health problems and substance-abuse are expected to increase. In fact, the article cites a prediction that the burden of those disorders could increase 130 percent in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, based off population simulation models.

The global health community recognizes the unmet needs in this area, but it should take a more concentrated effort addressing them, says al’Absi. He and his colleagues suggest building capacity for treating mental health and addiction and investing in research.

Key recommendations include:

  • Expand and invest in building health care capacity to match the growing prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse.
  • Increase epidemiological and basic science research surrounding global mental health and comorbidity with substance use problems.
  • Create a dialogue that sets the stage for policymaking and intersectional collaboration across research and clinical fields.
  • Optimize care delivery effectiveness through task-sharing, task-shifting, community-health based programs, increased focus on preventative care, integrating new models into pre-existing health systems, and more.

“The global health community has done wonderful work over the last decade, and that work has positioned us to have greater impact in terms of advancing science and translating it into practical and interventional efforts. The outcome should be reducing burdens associated with global mental health and substance abuse,” al’Absi said. “We’re looking to set the agenda for our next decade to be just as meaningful. It must account for what’s already being done and provide clear direction to what other priorities should be pursued in the future.”

al’Absi hopes that the Nature article will help encourage a thoughtful and engaging dialogue that would translate into more action towards curbing these global health challenges.