The Herald-Lateral Economics Index of Australia's Wellbeing estimates the cost of mental illness to Australia has reached $190 billion a year, or about 12 per cent of economic output.

Globally, the social and economic costs of mental illness are enormous, with international health bodies estimating that 13 per cent of the total global disease burden is due to mental disorders. Although they are closely linked to physical disorders and can affect the prognosis of heart disease, diabetes, and cancers, mental disorders rarely receive equal attention.

Recent milestones have provided an unfamiliar wave of optimism. The World Health Assembly agreed in Geneva last month on new public health measures, including a comprehensive mental health action plan for the next seven years. A week earlier, Commonwealth health ministers endorsed the secretariat's report 'Mental Health: Towards Economic and Social Inclusion' – the first time Commonwealth countries have supported a plan to improve mental health.

Perhaps the biggest advance, however, has been closer to home, with no fanfare and little recognition. China's first national mental health law was approved early last month by the National People's Congress. Whether this new law achieves its goal of minimising abuse and ending unjustified compulsory hospitalisation remains to be seen. Nevertheless China has covered a fifth of the world's population by legislation that aims – for the first time in its history – to protect the human rights of people with mental illness.

This remarkable step is part of a scientific and public health sea change in Asia that is underappreciated in Australia and the West. As part of the 'Asian Century', China and other countries in Asia are increasingly creating and developing corridors of innovation and networks of research and development where Australia is not prominent and in some cases is absent.

Disappointingly, our health and science leadership still largely has its gaze fixed on the United States and Europe. This is despite the countries of Asia last year surpassing the Americas in research and development investments ($518 billion vs $512 billion).

As potential opportunities in research and development rapidly slip away, the questions needing to be answered are: where are there windows still open, where can Australia build on its strengths and be valued as a collaborator and partner in Asia, and what models of working that may guide further development in health?

One area where we share common objectives and mutual interest is in mental health promotion, research and treatment. National governments are increasingly recognising that mental ill health carries not just a burden on individuals but also on their nations' economies and security. The need for further investment in mental health to build resilience in the face of increasing prevalence of natural and man-made disasters, including the effects of climate change, has become a pressing global concern.

Asia Australia Mental Health – a consortium of St Vincent's Mental Health, The University of Melbourne's Department of Psychiatry, and Asialink – has been building partnerships with mental health leaders and their governments in the Asia Pacific for more than 10 years. AAMH has worked with China as it attempts to provide mental health solutions for its vast population. It is also working with mental health leaders from the Sub-Mekong to establish a Sub-Mekong Region Mental Health Research Training Program. And it has worked with China, Cambodia and the Solomon Islands to protect the mental health of their people following natural disasters, including the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Recognising that the global mental health crisis is too big for one country or sector to deal with alone, we are building cohesion through a multilateral project that includes mental health leaders from 19 Asia Pacific countries. This project acknowledges the enormous treatment gaps and lack of appropriate services available in most of our partner countries but focuses on sharing strengths and best practices. In both high-resourced to deprived settings, the network encourages hybrid solutions and new ways of thinking.

For Australia, such a regional network helps us to extend our understanding of mental health. We are learning through our collaboration and engagement with Asian counterparts new and perhaps more effective ways to meaningfully contribute to the mental health of all Australians, including indigenous people and the growing numbers of our population who are of Asian backgrounds. These include not only culturally appropriate treatments but also empowering and strengthening the role of people with mental ill health in developing and implementing laws, policy and services.

Being part of a multi-lateral partnership gives Australia a much stronger voice as we advocate for greater recognition of mental health across regional groupings and global health architecture. Early next month we will share a platform with our Chinese colleagues at an APEC health meeting in Medan, Indonesia, as part of a coordinated effort to deal with the growing regional crisis of mental ill health. Our Australia-China partnership will be presented as a model in discussing what could guide an APEC roadmap to reduce the regional burden of mental health challenges.

Associate Professor Chee Ng, co-director of AAMH at The University of Melbourne, prepared the Commonwealth Secretariat's mental health report presented last month.