Today marks World Mental Health Day, aimed at promoting global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. This initiative commenced in 1992 through the offices of the World Federation for Mental Health, which is a global mental health organisation encompassing over 150 countries. The motto for this year is Mental Health In Primary Care: Enhancing Treatment And Promoting Mental Health.

In some countries, World Mental Health Day comprises part of the Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 5-11) that had been launched by the United States Congress in 1990 in response to a real increase in the incidence of mental illness.

Every year, during World Mental Health Day, thousands of people worldwide raise awareness and funds for mental health causes. Open discussion of such illness is promoted, as are investments in prevention and treatment services.

Statistics clearly show that, in 2002, there were 154 million people globally suffering from depression. And this is just one form of mental illness. Mental, neurological and behavioural disorders are common worldwide, causing immense suffering to the individual, the family and the country, with truly staggering economic and social costs.

It is estimated that mental disorders affect nearly 12 per cent of the world's entire population, that is, about 450 million people around the world will experience a mental illness that would benefit from diagnosis and treatment. Individuals with such disorders are often subjected to social isolation, a poorer overall quality of life and higher mortality rates.

World Mental Health Day also promotes self-awareness and encourages individuals who may be experiencing such problems to actively seek help. This may be through discussion with a partner or a friend or by actually seeking professional help. Unfortunately, most are likely to simply shrug and "get on with it", a practice that often works but which sometimes doesn't, potentially leading to a worsening of an already bad situation. Such lackadaisical attitudes are also fostered by the climate of labelling individuals, hence reducing the threatening potential through stigmatisation. And such lack of compassion, and outright exaggerated labelling, leads to social distancing and a true worsening of an individual's situation.

Just to give an example, a survey held in Britain this summer found that 92 per cent of respondents believed that "admitting to having a mental illness would damage someone's career". The three careers considered to be most at risk were doctors (56 per cent), emergency services (54 per cent) and teachers (48 per cent).

The situation in Malta is not any different. Mount Carmel Hospital's chief executive officer, Edward Borg, says the stigma still prevails and many found it hard to land a job. Employers, he points out, are reluctant to keep employees with mental illness because they required long periods of hospitalisation.

Compassion and the much-vaunted Christianity this island is supposed to embrace should automatically lead us to "do unto others as you would have others do unto you".

The Mental Health Association in Malta is an NGO working for the families and users of mental health services and, quite appropriately, its main aim, in this tiny insular country, is to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness by educating the public, school children and relatives of the mentally ill.

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