Dr. Jess Ghannam On The Global Mental Health Crisis

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While Dr. Jess Ghannam might be known for his work in global health, his definition of what makes up the most pressing issues might surprise you.

As Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Global Health Sciences in the School of Medicine at UCSF, his research areas include everything from evaluating the long-term health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological and psychiatric effects of armed conflict on children to the negative health impact that technology can have on people, particularly when not used in a self-aware and conscious way.Jess at TEDxSF

His perspective is naturally global given his background. He grew up as a first generation Palestinian in Detroit, which is where his family landed in the 1940s because that’s where the most promising jobs were at the time.

His heritage is from a land that was much more culturally, politically and socially integrated in his parent’s time than it is today.

“Palestine pre-1948 was much more multi-racial and multi-cultural,” he says reflecting on the stories he heard as a child from his parents and grandparents over the years. “Muslum, Christian and Jewish communities made it work in whatever way they could at the time.

Today, the area has transformed into a compartmentalized, segregated and disconnected society which is not a great recipe for peace or for health.”  

While Jess cares about global health across the board, he is particularly passionate about the hidden giant: mental health, which is increasing at an alarming rate worldwide.

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“We Have No Choice But To Transform the Way We Think About Global Health, Practices & Training.”

He shared a story about his first trip to Gaza when there was only one psychiatrist for 1.5 million people compared to five psychiatrists for every one person in San Francisco. In the San Francisco/Bay Area and other urban centers in the United States, you can pick up the phone and choose from hundreds of practitioners and doctors, but in the developing world, the ability to access mental health has been extremely difficult.


Jess and his team created a Mental Health Development Diploma Program in Gaza where they trained people to go into the community and schools and work with people directly, promoting basic techniques around wellness. His work which also set up community health clinics in the Middle East to focus on developing community-based treatment programs for families in crisis have been a huge success. As a result of his efforts in Gaza, today everyone has access to mental health assistance within a twenty year period.

Although he is most known for his mental health and humanitarian work in Palestine and along the Gaza Strip, he is working on transporting this program to India and Latin America.  Along his travels, he has witnessed a tragic progression of mental health issues, particularly the growing number of people who are disconnected and disengaged to their communities and their families. Says Jess, “we’re seeing radical shifts in health issues around the world and they’re more chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes and depression.

These are not things that require a pill.” Witnessing an increasingly disconnected world and the impact that this shift has had on people’s health has led him to the work he is doing now, at home and abroad.  The global challenge is how to make people more conscious and aware of the factors that have a negative impact on their health and implement things that can change the paradigm we are seeing today.

“We Need a New Model. We Need To Train Healthcare Facilitators Who Can Bring Awareness To Millions of People About How To Re-Engage With Their Families, Communities and Bodies.”

Among other factors, the increasing time spent using technology is one factor that is impacting people’s mental health. He says of his research and time abroad, “People around the world are spending more time on cell phones, more time with technology and working longer hours in manufacturing plants, and as a result, they’re spending less time with their families. Less connection time with their families and community is having a negative impact on their health.”

He adds, “one of the hardest things for me to see is how psychologically damaged the world is becoming.”  He calls it “over connected disorder,” but also says that he not against technology at all. In fact, he thinks that mobile technology can help people in developing countries have a better understanding of their mental health and treat it in real time using positive feedback and communication from others who share similar illnesses. They introduced glucometers to families living in apartment complexes and encouraged them to share them.

Sharing the devices and the data on those devices has led to positive changes in their lifestyle. On the receiving level, they felt that someone cares. The feedback mattered, so much so that it led to significant changes and activated them to do something such as implementing a better diet and more physical exercise into their lives. They had to accountable to themselves, to the community and to the family. It’s not that technology itself is having the negative impact on our mental health he asserts, but how we relate to it.

He says, “good global health means that we need to be able to relate to each other and communities in a very different way. A lot of difficulties we have globally and locally is how we are nurturing relationships. How do we manage to relate to one another? Are we doing so in a healthy way?” In other words, technology has to be treated as an enhancement and along the way, we need to be conscious about how we related to “it” on a regular basis. Ask yourself, “how much time are you spending with technology versus with your family or your community and is it in balance?” Moving forward, the bulk of his work will be on the mental health effects of the disconnectedness and adverse conditions people are going through, whether its political prisoners who have been tortured or people who live in slums. He is particularly interested in how people manage and cope under those conditions and remains astonished about how resilient people are despite what gets thrown their way.

“Health & Wellness are Human Rights, Not Privileges.”

Jess is also a consultant with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Reprieve and other international NGO’s that work with torture survivors. Locally he works to promote and enhance the health and wellness of refugee, displaced, and immigrant populations from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and has established a community-based Mental Health Treatment Programs to support these communities.

He says he was  always struck by Mlk, Rosa Parks and Desmond Tutu for their work fighting justice and freedom. He says, “I was mesmerized by them and others who are willing to put their life on the line for creating a more just society. They influenced me profoundly and how I think about healthcare.

Photo credits: TEDxSF photo from Flickr, other photos directly from Jess Ghannam. Slide credit: The WHO.


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