The leading cause of disability across the world is depression, and its effects are reducing life expectancy, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
The first step to combatting depression and other mental illnesses may be awareness: recognizing the symptoms and knowing how to address and possibly prevent them.
For over 30 years, David Baron, DO, former deputy clinical director at NIMH, has worked to increase global mental health literacy from places as close as his desk at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC) and as far as Saudi Arabia. His work has been recognized by the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright Scholar Program, which recently honored Dr. Baron as a Fulbright senior specialist for his efforts to improve international mental health literacy. Dr. Baron is also a finalist for the Fulbright distinguished chair position, one of the program’s highest honors, for his concussion research.
As a Fulbright senior specialist, Dr. Baron can be recruited to join other academics working to improve global mental health literacy at international higher learning institutions for two to four weeks at a time. Dr. Baron will remain on the Fulbright senior specialist roster for five years, so if time allows, he may collaborate with academics at more than one institution.
“The Fulbright Scholar Program is a means of academic diplomacy,” says Dr. Baron. “When people forget about religion, race, or creed and just work on something with mutual interest, positive relationships with foreign institutions are created.”
Dr. Baron, who was lecturing at the American University of Cairo in Egypt amid the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, is no stranger to building international relationships. Before lecturing in Egypt, he helped set up psychiatric education programs in Saudi Arabia.
“When I was there, I found out that a lot of people didn’t understand the core issues of mental and behavioral health,” says Dr. Baron. “People really didn’t know what depression was and couldn’t differentiate between depression as a mood state and depression as a disease.”
Dr. Baron became particularly interested in the interface between primary care and mental health, specifically trying to understand what exactly the public knows about mental health.
“People don’t try to prevent something they don’t know exists,” he says. “We as osteopathic physicians are trained to understand that, so when I work internationally, I can talk about the importance of core osteopathic issues like understanding an individual in the context of their life, their culture, and society.”
Education through film
Dr. Baron believes improving health literacy is best done through storytelling; he has used film to raise awareness of several conditions. He is the executive producer of Next Week’s Game, which provides a realistic portrait of how sports concussions can go unnoticed. Dr. Baron is also featured in a film that explains how to coach athletes with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.
“Telling an interesting story helps people to understand for themselves how to get a good night’s sleep, how to manage depression, and how to recognize symptoms of anxiety without feeling bad about it,” says Dr. Baron. “And if it’s a good story, you want to tell it as many times as you can.”