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Autism Speaks and the Movement for Global Mental Health

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Posted by Andy Shih, PhD, Autism Speaks vice president of scientific affairs, and Michael Rosanoff, MPH, associate director of public health research and scientific review

On our return from South Africa, we’d like to share with you–our community–the inspiration we drew from the Second Summit of the Movement for Global Mental Health, of which Autism Speaks is a proud member.

The summit convened in Cape Town on October 17th to continue the work of delivering mental health services to the 90 percent of the world population who have no access to such care. Many of these persons—including tens of millions of children and adults with autism—suffer tremendous social stigma and human rights abuse. To see a photo of a child chained to a tree is heart-breaking, but it galvanizes us to this cause.

The movement’s first summit, hosted in Athens in 2009, highlighted the global crisis in mental health services. During that first meeting, it became clear that the tremendous treatment gap between rich and poor communities was not due to lack of effective therapies. Rather, it stemmed from social, economic and policy barriers to delivering services.

Since then, the Movement for Global Mental Health has grown into an international coalition of 95 institutions and more than 1,700 individuals in over 100 countries—all dedicated to improving access to mental health care and promoting the human rights of people affected by neurodevelopmental disorders or mental illness.

Autism Speaks has taken an active role in this mission with our Global Autism Public Health initiative (GAPH), which has already helped create and support culturally and economically appropriate, sustainable programs for autism awareness, services and research in countries such as Albania, Bangladesh and South Africa.

This year’s Movement for Global Mental Health Summit emphasized the need for both scientific research and action on the ground to determine the best ways to deliver and enhance services in underserved communities. Though the need for such models is particularly dire in low- and middle-income nations, they are also desperately needed in many of our own disadvantaged communities.

Here in North America, we’ve learned the humbling lesson that autism intervention programs that deliver wonderful results in sophisticated, academic settings don’t necessarily work in the hands of overburdened teachers, healthcare professionals and social workers, many of whom lack expertise or professional support in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). As economies continue to stagnate and more families slip into poverty, challenges such as lack of awareness and access to care will only worsen.

This year’s summit also coincided with the publication of The Lancet’s second special issue on global mental health. We take special pride in the commentary “A Renewed Agenda for Global Mental Health,” written by Vikram Patel, one of our funded scientists and a professor of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. (The Lancet offers open access to Prof Patel’s and other articles in this series with free registration.)

Today, we have cause to celebrate the emerging global recognition that “there is no health without mental health.” In moving forward, we and the other members of the Movement for Global Mental Health see tremendous potential in achieving resolution in three major areas:

1)     In striking a balance between global and local priorities in research and service development—with the recognition that each is needed to inform and advance the other

2)      In balancing the need to develop new and more effective treatments with the need to understand and address the social barriers that exist to delivering such care to all who need it

3)     In continuing to pursue cutting edge research to benefit tomorrow’s children without neglecting the needs of the children and adults who are suffering today

For us, these resolutions embody the mission of Autism Speaks science: To improve the lives of all who struggle with ASDs by funding research and developing resources that will accelerate the discovery, development and dissemination of methods for effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

[As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. In addition to leaving a comment, you can email the science team at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org.]

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