Mental health makes an appearance at WHA73

In the run up to the 73rd World Health Assembly, the UN Secretary General called on member states to include mental health in their COVID-19 response plans. During the WHA, we were encouraged to see a number of member states and Non-State Actors refer explicitly to the need to include mental health in the COVID-19 response. What’s more, the number statements explicitly mentioning mental health increased significantly from last year (22 to 33 statements), despite the limited length of statements by participants and the overwhelming desire of most of them – if not all – to call for equitable access to a COVID-19 vaccine (which dominated the comments).

The Netherlands led the way among member states, calling for a strong, unified response to COVID-19, and in particular on mental health and psycho-social care. Canada highlighted the continued need to address mental health and wellbeing, stating ‘no one should suffer in silence’. Iceland demonstrated their vision by speaking of the necessity to monitor the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Sierra Leone, recalling their experience of Ebola, stressed the need to provide psychosocial support during the pandemic. Sweden called for uninterrupted and affordable access to essential health services, including mental health, with the leave no one behind global commitment being tested like never before. And Portugal continued its role as a champion for human rights and mental health reiterating the intrinsic link between them.

In accordance with the UN Policy Brief on Mental Health and COVID-19, and the calls for action from the UN Secretary General and WHO Director General, we hope that these and all other member states will take the opportunity to show strong leadership in fully integrating mental health into their COVID-19 response, as well as into routine health provision.

A growing number of civil society organisations called for governments to act on protecting the right to good mental health, and to fully integrate mental health services into COVID-19 global and national responses. The number of Non-State Actors (NSAs) who mentioned mental health increased from 12 in 2019 to 16 this year.

“Mental health impacts of the virus must also be considered, including the effects of isolation and loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, domestic violence and substance misuse.” – International Union for Health Promotion and Education

We call on WHO to support member states to….support physical activity and promote good mental health in order to avert longer term health crises and support resilience to this and future pandemics.” – World Obesity Federation

Civil society rightly highlighted vulnerable populations who require specific mental health protection and support such as children (International Pediatric Association, World Vision International), older people (HelpAge International, Alzheimer’s Disease International), healthcare professionals (International Council of Nurses, The International Hospital Federation, International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation), all front line workers, and in particularly women (Public Services International, International Women’s Health Coalition), and all people with psychosocial disabilities who are at particular risk (Sightsavers).

The profound effect COVID-19 is having on people’s mental health was made clear to the WHA by the International Association of Suicide Prevention: ‘[the] pandemic may lead to an increase in suicidal behaviour due to the development or exacerbation of known risk factors for self-harm such as mental ill-health, social isolation, entrapment, grieving, loneliness, hopelessness, unresolved anger, stigma, unemployment, financial strain, domestic violence, and excessive alcohol consumption.’

In advance of the World Health Assembly, the Speak Your Mind campaign organised an open letter – now with over 800 signatures – calling on governments to urgently step up to the PROTECT the right for all to good physical and mental health and SCALE up additional support especially for those most at risk of mental ill health during the pandemic including health care workers and other first responders, those economically impacted, COVID-19 survivors, and society’s most vulnerable.

Now more than ever it’s #TimeToInvest in mental health.