Mental Health in Third-World Countries

BY RHIANNA LACHHMAN (staff writer)

( Trigger warning: article mentions suicide rates and shows images of mental hospitals, if this topic is sensitive to you, please do not continue reading)

When you think of a person’s essential needs in order to thrive in life, you may think of food, water, and shelter, but what about a happy and healthy mindset? Mental health is one of the most important factors in living a happy life but is often neglected. It must be looked after just as much as any other basic human need is.

However, mental illnesses are stigmatized in LMIC (lower middle-income countries). It is important to discuss the cultural origins of mental health stigma, the correlation between living in a developing country and mental illness, and how mental health resources are progressing all across the globe.

Mental Health Stigma

Mental illness has always been a topic with a trail of stigma and harmful assumptions following it. These stigmatizations are especially prevalent in developing countries and ethnic communities. In general, those who suffer from mental illnesses are looked at as crazy, dangerous or weak. They can become shunned by those around them. This is because mental health is seen as less important than other necessities that one might be lacking in developing countries like food and shelter. Forbes describes this by saying “mental health is perceived as a luxury good. If you suffer from depression, it means you’re just a whiny person with all their basic needs satisfied. Doesn’t it? This is harmful and invalidates everyone’s mental health journeys and struggles.

Mental health stigma also contains cultural origins as well. For example, in Latin America, a common phenomenon is internalized by men called “machismo”. Machismo is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a strong sense of masculine pride.” Plenty of Latino men are told that they must protect and provide for their families, and to do this, they must be strong. Furthermore, the traditional definition of strong is to be so powerful that it shows no signs of vulnerability or weakness. This can also be seen as a form of toxic masculinity, which promotes the idea of men being figures of strength, and they should never show emotions. This can cause men to suppress their emotions, which can lead to mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

One of the most widespread and dangerous assumptions about mental illnesses in LMIC is that they are caused by the supernatural; demonic possession, divine retribution, witchcraft, etc. In India, those with mental illness travel to a Dargah in Chalisgaon to seek prayers for treatment, as they believe they are victims of spiritual corruption. They are shunned by their families and may never return to their regular life. A similar phenomenon is seen throughout Africa, where the mentally ill seek cures through prayers as a last resort. These prayer resorts are often inhumane and unethical, as they will also chain up their patients and have them continue praying until change occurs. The attribution of mental illness to spiritual desecration is also seen throughout Asia and the Caribbean. According to an abstract by NCBI ( National Centre for Biotechnology Information), this is why several mental health issues go undiagnosed and unreported.

Images of a Dargah in Chalisgaon, from Vice News documentary

“Locked up and Forgotten: India’s Mental Health Crisis”

Images of a mental hospital in Mumbai, India, from Vice News

documentary “Locked up and Forgotten: India’s Mental Health Crisis”

From New York Times documentary, “The Chains of Mental Illness in West Africa”

The stigma surrounding mental health can be very dangerous, especially when the negative point of view is widely believed. This can make one’s mental health conditions worse as they could believe they are abnormal. There are also many other ways third-world countries can affect your mental health.

How Living in Developing Countries can Impact your Mental Health

Over 80% of those suffering from mental disorders reside in LMIC and unfortunately, 73% of suicides in the world occur in developing countries. There are many connections between third-world countries and mental illness. Some of these include common circumstances that come with living in LMIC, such as losing or not having access to stable essential resources like income, employment, housing, etc. Also, economic insecurity makes living situations extremely difficult. This can induce stress and lead to depression, which explains how depression is considered the most common mental health disorder in developing countries. Wars and natural disasters such as tsunamis and famines are also leading factors of mental illnesses. According to the NCBI, “Emotional instability, stress reactions, anxiety, trauma, and other psychological symptoms are observed commonly after the disaster and other traumatic experiences.”

In addition, in developing countries, resources to help deal with mental illnesses are extremely scarce. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), many of those who require mental healthcare in LMIC don’t receive treatment. This treatment gap is about 70%- 90%. Countries with low income typically have less than one psychiatrist per every 100,000 people. Not to mention, psychiatric care is commonly underfunded. For example, in 2015, India spent less than 1% of its health budget on mental health care, as stated in the Vice documentary “Locked up and Forgotten: India’s Mental Health Crisis”. This is why many mental health disorders go undiagnosed and unmedicated. On the bright side, this issue seems to be progressing as mental health awareness begins to spread.

How Mental Health Resources are Improving:

Mental health issues are beginning to be prioritized in developing countries. In 2015, the UN included mental health and substance abuse treatment in the sustainable development goals. Even notable world leaders are recognizing the importance of mental health treatment. The WHO director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, stated that “the inclusion of non-communicable diseases under the health goal is a historical turning point. Finally, these diseases are getting the attention they deserve.”

Many charitable organizations are working to improve mental health in third-world countries. One of the most prominent organizations includes Strongminds. Strongminds works to help women in Sub-Saharan Africa suffering from depression. In fact, in Africa, depression affects 1 in 4 women and roughly 85% have no resources to seek help. Here is a brief diagram of how the program works:

In West Africa, Gregoire Ahongbonon founded a mental health organization called Saint-Camille-de-Lellis. This organization has eight centers located in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Benin. The organization takes in those with mental illnesses and provides them with shelter and medication and teaches patients skills to help them make money and get back on their feet. It acts as a reliable and healthier alternative as opposed to the prayer sites that many of those suffering from mental illnesses resort to. To learn more about Saint-Camille-de-Lellis, check out this documentary here:

Partners in Health (PIH) is another organization that works to provide mental health treatment and end the stigma surrounding it. They partner with countries to create mental health treatment programs. Other impactful charities include The Guyana Foundation and Swarnapath; these charities work to provide resources for mental health in Caribbean countries.

The solution to ending stigma and misinformation is education and awareness. You can do your part by spreading awareness about mental illnesses and shutting down any harmful assumptions or remarks you may hear someone make.

Resources throughout LMIC are becoming more abundant. This goes to show

that no matter where you are in the world, help is always there if you are struggling.

Mental Health Resources:

Link to global resources:

Crisis Text Line:

Text “HELLO” to 741741

National Suicide Line:



Image Sources:

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