Health: reaching a breakthrough moment

By Elisha London, CEO of United for Global Mental Health

In 2013 I was running a charity in London and was happy, healthy and productive. Then, one day, I suffered a trauma. Overnight, I was unable to eat, sleep or work. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and then, chronic depression. It took me years to recover.

During this struggle, my life turned upside down. I lost friends, my identity, the ability to fully function and – almost – my life. Yet with a huge amount of support including a combination of therapy, medication and supportive friends and family – I slowly got better and committed to the slow and hard work of rebuilding my life.

Fast forward to September 2018 and I’m preparing to join the head of the World Health Organization, government ministers and advocates on mental health from around the world on stage. Together we’ll be moving mental health up the agenda at one of the world’s most prominent forums: the United Nations General Assembly taking place in New York.

A lot has clearly changed since those years of trauma and recovery. In 2016 I was appointed as Campaign Director for the Heads Together campaign. Memorably spearheaded by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke of Sussex, Heads Together successfully catalysed a national conversation about mental health, which did so much to shake off the stigma around talking about mental health. With suicide the leading cause of death for men under 40 and a quarter of girls becoming depressed by the age of 14 in the UK, the campaign was so badly needed by all ages and genders.

Mental health still has a long way to go in the UK, whether we’re looking at promoting mental wellbeing or preventing and treating mental ill health. There is also a long way to go globally.

The world is experiencing an unprecedented mental health challenge. Multiple factors are driving the rise in mental ill health, particularly amongst young people. From conflict to loneliness, fragile economies to changing environments, all have a serious impact on people’s mental health and lives.

In the world today, one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death globally among 15-29 year olds.

So, following my work with Heads Together, I began to look for campaigns operating globally. I was shocked to discover there was a huge gap in global campaigning, advocacy and financing for mental health around the world.

Intent on closing this gap, together advocates, officials, campaigners, researchers, medical professionals and – most importantly – people with first-hand experience of mental ill health around the world have come together to launch a new organization tomorrow; United for Global Mental Health (UnitedGMH).

We are motivated by bringing people together from around the world to learn from each other and collectively improve mental health globally.

When I was suffering with my mental health, I drew upon the strength and support of friends in Kenya I met through Many Hopes, which focuses on giving children education, confidence and networks. The girls I met had also been through their own mental health challenges and received psychological support to recover, while having their physical needs looked after. Now, they are some of the most confident and loving girls I know. Knowing these girls, together with my own experience, taught me that it is possible to recover from the kinds of mental health challenges we all faced.

Yet so few people globally get the kind of life-changing help we had. At least two-thirds of people with mental disorders around the world receive no treatment.

And, it’s the world’s poorest and most marginalised that are most affected, yet, receive the least amount of support. In many countries, especially low and middle income countries where 75% of mental health conditions occur, people are often marginalised and forced to suffer outdated and dangerous treatment, in some cases shackled to beds or trees.

Making connections across borders, UnitedGMH is committed to ensuring everyone, everywhere can turn to someone who is able to support their mental health when needed. This could be friends, family, colleagues, teachers, first responders – or medical support, if needed.

And, there are incredible organisations and individuals all over the world working to make this vision a reality.

For example, ‘The Friendship Bench’, an initiative which is being featured this week at the UN event. Founded by Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, The Friendship Bench trains grandmothers to provide problem-solving therapy, while seated on benches outside of health clinics in Harare, Zimbabwe. This smart, simple and cost effective intervention has been found to deliver significant improvements in depressive and suicidal ideations, reducing symptoms by up to 85%. Dixon’s ‘Friendship Benches’ have been adopted around the world, popping up in New York and Malawi, with Tanzania, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all looking to bring the concept to their countries.

Now is the moment for ideas like the Friendship Bench to go global.

More research into how the mind works is still needed but we have more than enough solutions that are working right now to put into practice at a much greater scale. Immediate action will help millions of people around the world who are suffering from preventable or treatable mental ill health.

Fortunately, the tides are changing, which provides hope that this vision could be a reality. People of all backgrounds from every country and industry are speaking out about mental health from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern to Lady Gaga, and people with lived experience all over the world.

As mindsets change, the next steps of action are emerging. A research-backed blueprint for action on global mental health is coming out in October, published by the world’s top medical journal, The Lancet. The blueprint will be launched at the first-ever global ministerial mental health summit, which will be hosted by the UK government.

I hope 2018 will be remembered as the year that kickstarted a new season of action on mental health, marking the beginning of radically more attention, action and funding; both domestically and internationally.

The time to act is now and governments, the private sector, development agencies, academic institutions, and civil society must work together to increase political and financial support in all countries.

Together we can build a world where our bodies and minds are safe, valued and free to thrive. Where everyone, everywhere, has someone to turn to if their mental health needs support.

Join us and let’s stand United for Global Mental Health.