Psychiatrist Focuses Research Efforts on Global Well-Being

Uriel Halbreich, MD

Published September 11, 2019

At a time when electronic media can communicate societal upheaval and unrest around the world as it’s happening, a group of leading international psychiatrists is calling for an integrated and interdisciplinary approach to global public health that gives behavioral specialists a central role.

“Optimally, psychiatrists are, or should be, the change agents, the experts who are knowledgeable in all aspects of emotions, thinking and behavior.”
Professor of psychiatry

Movement Reflects International Consensus

At the recent annual meeting of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) in Lisbon, Portugal, Uriel Halbreich, MD, professor of psychiatry, led discussions among his peers geared toward implementing such an approach on a global scale.

The meeting followed the publication of a paper titled “Partnerships for Interdisciplinary Collaborative Global Well-Being” in the journal Asia-Pacific Psychiatry, outlining the need for mental health professionals to take the lead. Halbreich, director of the Department of Psychiatry’s biobehavioral research, is first author.

He notes the paper reflects the international consensus on the topic, as the authors are 15 psychiatrists practicing on five continents.

Since the paper’s publication, other psychiatrists interested in joining the effort have contacted Halbreich from nations in Africa, Central and South Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet republics as well as throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Well-Integrated Approaches Lacking

Citing the ambitions that accompanied the formation of the World Health Organization after World War II, the paper notes that despite worldwide agreement that optimal well-being includes both mental and physical health, such a well-integrated approach is lacking in the majority of the world’s health care systems.

“It is quite well-accepted that mental aspects are an integral component of any disastrous and traumatic event,” Halbreich says. “International and national agencies involve mental health professionals in the very early stages of response. Comprehensive well-being is not just concerned with psychiatry or mental health, but with economic, social, cultural and spiritual aspects.”

Among the most disruptive issues the paper cites as currently impacting human health — in both developing and advanced economies — are “a shaken sense of individual safety and stability, waves of immigrants and refugees with cultural, religious, political and socio-economic backgrounds that clash with those of their targeted refuge societies, as well as waves of population shifts across and within countries.”

Providing Leadership on Globalization Issues

Growing gaps between traditional cultures and changing attitudes and cultural norms, especially among women, are cited. In short, the paper states that the forces of globalization constitute “an open confrontation with nationalism, tribalism and commercial protectionism.”

In addition, the paper notes that all chronic diseases also carry with them a mental or emotional impact.

Citing his 2018 study, “Pursuit of Happiness, Prosperity and Health,” published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Halbreich notes that given these challenges, all of which are felt around the world, it is up to mental health professionals to provide leadership to begin to deal effectively with them.

Psychiatrists Acting As Change Agents

“Optimally, psychiatrists are, or should be, the change agents, the experts who are knowledgeable in all aspects of emotions, thinking and behavior,” he says. “These include the biophysiology of brain and body, socio-economic-psychological processes and interactions with — and adaptation to — changing environmental conditions.”

Halbreich, who is the chair of the WPA section on interdisciplinary collaborations, worked with colleagues at the Lisbon meeting to begin to implement organizations called Regional Interdisciplinary Collaborative Alliances.

These organizations will deal with local problems and how they impact the most vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, those with long-standing physical and mental problems, as well as girls and women.

And while his outlook is clearly global, Halbreich also notes that such issues permeate local areas as well.

“Like many other places in the world, Buffalo is undergoing huge demographic and economic change. From one side this is very positive, but from the other side there are demographic groups that are not benefiting from this renaissance,” he says.

“Therefore, there should be a comprehensive, integrative and collaborative approach to pursuing comprehensive well-being.”