What Chris Underhill witnessed at 21, set the course of his life. It was a scene straight out of a horror movie…but it was appallingly real.
Outside a hospital in the African country of Malawi, he noticed a cage. Locked inside were mentally ill people, ostracized by the community and, worse, being tortured by children who were poking sticks at them, making them scream and jump up and down.
“It became clear to me that it was important for us to have programs around the world that would help de-stigmatize mental illness and ensure that the affected people get back into society and become a part of everyday community life.”
Chris had found his mission…
“To meet people at the margin. I seem to go where others don’t go – at least not in great numbers!”
According to the World Health Organization, there are about 450 million people in the world suffering from mental disorders and, in the developing world, up to 85% of them have no access to treatment. The situation is even worse in the poorest countries where mental illness is a taboo topic, offering mentally ill people little hope of recovery.
So, in 2000, Chris Underhill founded BasicNeeds, an international organization based in the UK, dedicated to bringing global attention to the issue of mental illness and lasting change in the lives of mentally ill people around the world.
As the name suggests, Chris wants to insure that the basic needs of people with mental illness and epilepsy are met and their basic rights are recognized and respected.
“Before I actually started BasicNeeds I met a lot of experts in many countries but, more importantly, I met families with a mentally ill member living in poor communities and listened to what they had to say. Once they started to talk, what needed to be done became clear – their lives had to be transformed.”
To achieve that, BasicNeeds employs a holistic, innovative approach combining affordable mental health services with opportunities for affected individuals to work and earn -- a crucial step in helping them gain self-respect and dignity by becoming on economic asset to their families and communities.
“Mentally ill people are studiously ignored by most people most of the time,” Chris says. “So I want to understand what they want, especially in very poor settings, and it is always great when they can go back to work or give voice to their needs and concerns. “
Predominantly focused on low and middle-income countries, BasicNeeds works across the spectrum, from individuals and communities, to local and national governments, and international organizations.
Since its founding, BasicNeeds says it has improved the lives of over 631,000 people in 12 countries, while developing comprehensive field-based research and national and global advocacy. The organization hopes to work with an additional one million people in resource-poor communities by 2018.
And though Chris is often recognized for his work with society’s most vulnerable members, he prefers to turn the spotlight on them.
“The ego, or too great an appreciation of one’s self actually gets in the way of being effective and of serving others and, in particular, of encouraging people on the margin to talk for themselves.”
Chris is a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and was named a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur.
In 2000, he was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth for his services to disability and development.