Member states demand greater advocacy and priority for mental health

Over the past week, representatives from national governments around the world virtually ‘gathered’ for the annual meeting of the Executive Board (EB) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to discuss the world’s most pressing health issues. The EB is the key WHO decision making body that meets ahead of the World Health Assembly (WHA). In discussions at the EB, member states respond to reports and recommendations made by WHO and agree the agenda and resolutions to be considered for the WHA in May.

It was one year ago that – for the first time ever – the EB had a dedicated agenda item on mental health and emergencies. A record number of member states wanted to discuss mental health – and particularly the impact of COVID-19 on mental health. They reflected on what they and the WHO should do to improve mental health in the future.

This year mental health was included in the agenda under discussion on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), Agenda Item 7. Mental health was one of, if not the most, talked about health topic during Agenda Item 7 of the EB meeting. 39 out of 47 member states that gave statements during the session mentioned mental health (with more submitting written statements) which is an increase from even the WHA last year demonstrating how mental health continues to grow in prominence on the global stage.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health was a key area of discussion with many member states – including Argentina, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Spain and the USA – noting the significant negative impact the pandemic has had on not only individuals mental health and wellbeing but also on mental health systems.

Member states stressed the importance of the integration of mental health into pandemic response and recovery plans. For some this means the integration of mental health into mainstream health systems and the training of more mental healthcare workers. Several member states linked this to the integration of mental health into universal health coverage reforms and approaches, as stated by Denmark on behalf of themselves, Scandinavian and Baltic countries: By integrating mental health in primary health care we believe that we will achieve UHC.

Rights was also a key theme during the session with Member States such as France (speaking on behalf of the European Union and the wider European region) stating: We must ensure the highest attainable level of mental health free of stigma and discrimination as fundamental human right. This follows the successful Ministerial summit, hosted by France in 2021, on improving rights to good mental health. And it was very encouraging that the USA made it clear that involving people with lived experience is critical in mental health policy and programme design.

A key part of the EB meeting is hearing the WHO report on its progress and many member states endorsed the WHO progress report on mental health activities. Moreover several member states and organisations including the International Council of Nurses called for mental health to once again have a dedicated, standalone agenda item at future EB and WHA meetings due to the importance of the issue. And the WHO responded – agreeing to do so.

In summarising the WHO’s response to the discussion on mental health, Dr Ren Minghui, the Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage/ Communicable and Noncommunicable Disease at WHO, said:

We value your comments on mental health, particularly in the context of the pandemic. Despite increased interest, unfortunately the global situation in mental health remains challenging and progress is still very limited. We hear some suggestions in terms of [increasing mental health] advocacy [by WHO] which is absolutely needed to increase the priority for mental health. And we hear your suggestion to focus on mental health and to emphasise the need for visibility and especially increased resources and give visibility to these very important areas. And also to member states who request and suggest the need to have mental health as a standalone agenda item at the EB and the WHA. That should absolutely be for the member states’ determination.

Going forward, UnitedGMH and its partners will continue to support:

  1. The call for the WHA to feature mental health as a standalone agenda item
  2. The request that WHO increase its advocacy in support of mental health
  3. The recommendation that mental health is fully integrated in Universal Health Coverage
  4. The recommendation that the rights of all persons to good mental health and to mental health support free from coercion and in line with human rights norms and standards is upheld.

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The Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN) is the world’s leading advocacy network for better global mental health. If you would like to get involved in GMHAN’s work, register to become a member of the network today.