Mental health at UNGA 2022: good discussions, much more needed

James Sale, Director of Policy, Advocacy and Financing

This year’s High-Level Week of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) was held against the dark backdrop of war, economic turbulence, and global health insecurity. All of which hugely impact, and are impacted by, mental ill health. Yet the presence of mental health (as a discussion point, at least) was low in the comparatively more accessible UNGA side events this year.


UNICEF led the charge in redressing this with two excellent events on child and adolescent mental health which culminated in the release of their new policy briefing on mental health in education. UNICEF is promoting schools and other educational venues as a key part of mental health systems, calling for the education sector to be supported to create spaces that are not only mentally healthy but also to provide early interventions. The event, sponsored by the Thai Government, had high-level speakers including a passionate call to action from the Queen of Spain, and Dr Tedros who reminded us that for progress to be achieved we need sustained finance and coordination between health and education systems. In the broad spectrum of mental health, for this year’s UNGA it was adolescent mental health that could be seen on the events listing.  


These types of global political gatherings allow for mental health to be discussed in multidisciplinary ways and for us advocates to insert mental health into discussions where it may not have been otherwise. Two notable events that I attended were the Jhpiego hosted event on primary health care (PHC), at which Dr Atul Gawande confirmed that mental health is an integral part of his and USAID’s approach to PHC, and a presentation from the Expert Working Group on Global Public Investments (GPI) on development finance reimagined. On the former, it is significant that Dr Gawande highlights mental health within his approach to PHC as PHC is the backbone of his tenure at USAID, directing how the US Government engages with health systems in many low- and middle-income countries, and providing leadership to other development agencies. 


On the latter event, the global mental health sector has a lot to learn and a lot to offer. GPI is proposing a new way of doing international development finance that addresses the entrenched power imbalance in the status quo. The historic lack of international mental health finance, although tragic, is an opportunity to do finance differently with a sector not held back by long-standing issues and politics, those working in development finance should grab this. Watch out for the Global Mental Health Action Network’s (GMHAN) working group on financing over the next couple of months as they explore this. 


There is a growing sense that 2023 will be a big year for global mental health, many exciting plans are being laid – we have detailed these here. A test of success will be UNGA 2023. Will mental health be on the agenda either in its own space or, better still, integrated throughout the world’s discussion on the most pressing social, economic and security issues? Will mental health be a core part of the SDGs Summit and the UHC High Level Meeting? The work to achieve that has already begun: for example the GMHAN universal health coverage working group has just launched a new advocacy toolkit. We need the global mental health sector and our allies in other sectors to work together to make 2023 a success and ensure that mental health is at the forefront of global discussions.


*James Sale is Director of Policy, Advocacy and Financing and United Global Mental Health