How ‘evidence-based’ is the Movement for Global Mental Health?


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24 pp

A central claim in publicity for the Movement for Global Mental Health is that the movement is both ‘rights-based’ and ‘evidence-based’. In this article we focus on the second claim, critically examining the evidence on which the movement’s programme is based. The concepts and methodology of the movement are those of mainstream Western psychiatry, so we first review briefly the inadequacies and inconsistencies of this framework, in particular the problems of identifying, measuring, explaining and treating ‘mental illnesses’. We conclude that the scientific knowledge base of contemporary psychiatry has been gravely distorted by its dependence on financing from the pharmaceutical industry, which has led to exaggerated attention on biomedical theories and treatments with a corresponding neglect of social factors and prevention. Second, we examine the problems of transferring this framework to low and middle-income countries. Adopting a biomedical view enables the movement to evade awkward questions regarding the cultural embeddedness of the issues it deals with and their relation to social, economic and political conditions in these countries. Confident claims are made by the movement about the nature and prevalence of ‘mental illnesses’ across the world, the burden they represent, and the benefits to be expected from tackling them by ‘scaling-up’ mental health services based on Western knowledge. However, cross-cultural psychiatric epidemiology is not sufficiently developed to be able to support any of these claims and the considerable quantities of data that are produced as ‘evidence’ turn out to be largely based on guesswork. The article concludes that Western psychiatry can certainly provide low- and middle income countries with instructive examples – but they are mainly examples of what not to do.


Disability and the Global South, 2014, Vol. 1 No. 2


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