Mental Health at the 74th World Health Assembly

Over the past week, Health Ministers from around the world virtually ‘gathered’ for the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) to discuss the world’s most pressing health issues. COVID-19 was obviously the key topic for discussion and – given the impact of the pandemic on mental health – ministers discussed mental health more extensively than at any previous WHA.

In his closing speech, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus drove home the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health globally.

“One day – hopefully soon – the pandemic will be behind us, but the psychological scars will remain for those who have lost loved ones, health workers who have been stretched beyond breaking point, and the millions of people of all ages confronted with months of loneliness and isolation.”

The need to address mental health in the context of COVID-19 was critical to the endorsement of the updated Mental Health Action Plan (2021-2030) that sets out the targets and indicators by which member states will measure their progress towards better mental health for all. One new target explicitly calls for mental health to be integrated in health emergency planning and response (e.g. future pandemics).

Over 35 member states and non-state actors spoke on mental health – outlining what they are doing and what they plan to do in the future – including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Cambodia, Portugal and Zambia. Groups of countries also issued statements e.g. from the European Union. This follows on from a very successful Executive Board meeting earlier in the year, where member states unanimously agreed this decision on mental health and COVID-19. In it member states urged one another to:

  • “To develop and strengthen as appropriate, as part of a broader whole-of-society approach, the timely and quality provision of the whole range of comprehensive and integrated mental health services and psychosocial supports which… are essential components to achieving universal health coverage.”
  • “To allocate adequate funding for mental health, to take action to mainstream knowledge of mental health among other health professionals, and to study the impact of COVID-19 on mental, neurological and substance use conditions and their consequences and share lessons learned with the Secretariat and Member States.”

The WHO have released a report of the mental health agenda item at WHA, and you can see all statements collated here (under agenda item 18).

But what does this discussion and focus on mental health actually mean? And how can we make sure words translate into action? 

We must make sure that health ministers are held accountable, and hold their governments accountable to follow through with these statements. We know that these health ministers believe that mental health needs to be funded, and they understand the dire urgency of providing services for those most in need. But, in order to ensure the Action Plan is accomplished we need to ensure there is effective and urgent follow through.

An analysis of the updates to the action plan can be found here, and the Global Mental Health Action Network Secretariat have produced this vital guide for advocates. It sets out, by thematic area, what is new in the plan by way of targets and indicators, and what “options for implementation” advocates can use to advocate for change.

What happened at WHA and what next are featured parts of the Global Mental Health Action Network’s annual meeting:

  • June 2, 2021 – Opening Session – Devora Kestel, Director of Mental Health and Substance Use will provide an update on the WHA and what next
  • June 4, 2021 – Closing Session – Sarah Kline, Co-Founder and Interim CEO of UnitedGMH, will be joined by other speakers to discuss what next for mental health and the many events coming up in June and beyond to sustain the momentum generated by the WHA.