The (Mis)appropriation of HIV/AIDS advocacy strategies in Global Mental Health: Towards a more nuanced approach

Alison Howell, China Mills, Simon Rushton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Background: Mental health is increasingly finding a place on global health and international development agendas. Advocates for Global Mental Health (GMH), and international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, argue that treatments available in high-income countries should also be made available in low- and middle-income countries. Such arguments are often made by comparing mental health to infectious diseases, including the relative disease and economic burdens they impose, and pointing to the applicability of the right to access treatment for mental health, not only infectious diseases. HIV/AIDS advocacy in particular has been held up by GMH advocates as offering an appropriate strategy for generating global commitment. Discussion: There is a need to assess how health issues are framed not only in relation to social goods outside of health (such as human rights, security or development), but also in relation to other health or disease models, and how health policy and practice is shaped as a result. The article debates the merits and consequences of likening mental health to HIV/AIDS, and identifies four major problems with the model for GMH advocacy being developed through these analogies: 1. An inappropriately universalizing global approach to context-specific problems; 2. A conception of human rights that focuses on the right to access treatment at the expense of the right to refuse it; 3. A tendency to treat poverty as a psychiatric issue, rather than recognizing that mental distress can be the result of poverty and other forms of inequality; 4. The prioritization of destigmatization of disease over social justice models. Conclusion: There are significant problems with the wholesale adoption of an (often simplified) version of HIV/AIDS advocacy as a model for GMH. Yet critical engagement with the important and nuanced differences between HIV/AIDS and mental health may nevertheless point to some possibilities for productive engagement and cross-fertilisation between advocates, activists and scholars in both fields.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number44
JournalGlobalization and Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health Policy
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Global mental health
  • Global public health policy
  • Human rights
  • International development
  • Medicalization


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