World Mental Health Day is a day of awareness for one of the most dangerous and prevalent illnesses affecting millions of people worldwide. This invisible disease is not only a taboo and a third-rail topic in almost all societies, but if not treated can lead to catastrophic and continuous harming of societies at large.
But what is Mental Health and why is everyone — from the United States to Ukraine, Syria to Somalia, Uganda to the United Kingdom — so afraid of touching the topic?
According to World Health Organization, the global watchdog for health, “mental health” is a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” This is while the U.S. Mental Health organization says that mental health includes “emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”
When an individual is hopeless, has no sense of belonging, does not feel productive, and feels as if he or she is being robbed from reaching his or her full potential — it is ineluctable that the person can no longer have the ability to cope with the “normal stresses of life” and can potentially break down and ultimately in more severe cases commit “suicide.”
In many cases, suicidal people have no care for life. Therefore it is only natural that their ability to take away life will only increase in time. According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), “on average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.”
WHO describes suicide as a “global phenomenon.” In 2016, “79 percent of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries” and accounted for 1.4 percent of all deaths worldwide, making it the 18th leading cause of death that same year. Additionally according to WHO, each year, “nearly 800,000 people die due to suicide, which is one person every 40 seconds.” In addition, Depression is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease and if not treated can evolve into suicide. Same report indicates that today, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression worldwide.
In a world where there are many rogue actors and terrorist groups — the depressed, hopeless, and vulnerable population has the potential of gearing toward negative coping mechanism and becoming an accessible praying pool for recruitment, radicalization, and brainwash.
In most low-income countries and conflict zones, young men and teenage boys are not only deprived from basic education and vocational training, but are also incredibly marginalized by the rest of the society.
Across the Middle East and South East Asia, where I’ve reported from refugee camps and conflict zones, I’ve witnessed how the young, jobless, out of school, and disenfranchised population — of young men — have easily lost hope, sense of dignity, and belonging — with many suffering from depression, without knowing or having any idea about its cure, nor access to any adequate support or treatment.
It is no surprise that many places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Bangladesh and other turbulent and poor environments are more susceptible to extremist recruitment. In many cases the recruiters tap into the most vulnerable groups of boys and young men and take all necessary measures to manipulate and thus fulfill their sense of dignity, belonging, and financial security. This has been seen time and time again with ISIS recruitment in Iraq and Syria as well as with Taliban, Al Qaeda, and now ISIS recruitment in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.
In April, I visited the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, where hundreds of thousands of people were living in abject poverty whilst coping with the genocidal trauma perpetrated by the Myanmar military apparatus as well as the inhumane conditions of life in Bangladesh. Since the beginning of the refugee influx in August 2017, there were reports that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other insurgency groups are and will be tapping into this vulnerable population.
While there are no confirmed radicalizations, the prospects of such efforts are inevitable in an environment where mentally despaired, traumatized, and hopeless people are desperate to make ends meet or fulfill their sense of belonging, purpose, and potentially “religious duties” if adequately compensated and manipulated — a task that so many global terrorist organizations have mastered.
Depression, anxiety, and trauma are all part of the larger mental health of an individual; however tackling such issues in low-income countries and conflict zones have proven to not only be a costly task but also one that for unfortunate and unclear reasons has not been prioritized by international aid agencies, governments and the United Nations.
The infiltration of marginalized and psychologically vulnerable youth is not exclusive or limited to conflict zones and low-income families. Elsewhere in the world disenfranchised, depressed, mentally ill, and socially outcast youth are also at risk.
The Kuachi brothers who attacked the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015 are an example of such risks. It is undeniable that the troubled, turbulent, and marginalized childhood of Algerian-French orphans played a pivotal role in their upbringing and thus psychological, ideological, and financial voids that were ultimately fulfilled by rogue actors through radical ideologies.
Back in the U.S., while there can’t be an absolute correlation between the astonishingly regular mass-shootings across the nation and the “mental health” of the shooters — there are enough cases to amplify the mental instability of the killers, and therefore the urgent need to prioritize mental health in this country.
In 2017, A U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq opened fire and killed five people at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida. Later, it was found that Esteban Santiago — then 26 — suffers from schizophrenia — a chronic and severe mental disorder. Now while his mental health illness could not be linked to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) often witnessed in many war veterans, it is inescapable that his mental instability played a central role in his decision-making and thus rampage.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and as Dr. Glenn Geher of the State University of New York argues, “the nation is getting less and less mentally healthy with time.”
While there can never be a black and white answer to why certain people join extremism or pick up a gun and go on a mass shooting spree, there is enough evidence to show that if mental health illnesses and psychological challenges are not properly diagnosed and treated they can lead the individual to adapt negative coping mechanisms or ultimately suicide — all of which are not only harmful to the individual, but ultimately his or her family, society, and the world at large.
All these are poignant cases and reasons as to why, the mental health of not just Americans but the global population should be of a national security concern for the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
Tara Kangarlou is an award-winning journalist who has has written, reported, and produced for CNN, CNN International, NBC Los Angeles, Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, and Al Monitor. In 2016, she founded Art of Hope a non-profit 501(c)3 organization helping Syrian refugees overcome trauma, PTSD, and psychological wounds. She is currently working on her upcoming book on Iran. To read more of her reports, Click Here Now.
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