Promising call to action on mental health at the WHA76
By Sarah Kline, CEO and Co-Founder, United for Global Mental Health
The Seventy-sixth World Health Assembly (WHA76) was held under the theme “WHO at 75: Saving lives, driving health for all”. More than ever before, there were more side events and discussions about mental health this year. Organisers of the events included WHO and other international agencies, UN Member States, civil society organisations (CSOs), media and the private sector.
Denmark declared it has made mental health a top priority and intends do be a global champion, Argentina spoke about its leadership role in hosting the next mental health Ministerial meeting. A host of governments made very strong statements on mental health in their statements to the Assembly demonstrating their concern about mental health goes beyond a response to the impact of COVID-19 and now towards mainstreaming mental health into health service delivery. Young people remain the greatest champions of mental health, and they frequently raised the issue during the week. It was encouraging to hear a wide range of health actors increasingly integrating mental health in their messaging – from the NCD Alliance to the TB and HIV communities.
Here are some highlights from the event in line with the key themes UnitedGMH championed throughout the week.
Crises exacerbate mental ill health
Events exploring the impact of climate change and environmental issues on health were amongst the most attended. At one event, African Ministers of Health described the various crises they are currently facing including forced displacement, higher incidence of cholera, changing livelihoods, and increasing poverty. They outlined the interventions they are implementing to respond to current crises and prepare for future ones. The Netherlands, Kenya and other countries called for the introduction of a new climate change and health resolution at the WHA in 2024. This proposal will now go to the regional committees for discussion. UnitedGMH will work with partners to ensure mental health is fully integrated in the new resolution. Plans for the health day at Conferences of the partities (COP) are now underway and UnitedGMH has made a strong case for the integration of mental health into programs addressing climate change.
Children’s and young people’s mental health is a priority
The Commonwealth side event titled “No Health Without Mental Health” provided an opportunity for health ministers from a range of countries and young leaders to discuss crucial measures aimed at enhancing mental health services. The ministers highlighted their work to increase mental health support and combat stigma. The young leaders advocated for the creation of platforms and safe spaces for young people to openly share their personal experiences, as a means of combating stigma and discrimination against individuals with mental health issues. Devora Kestel, Director of mental health and substance use at WHO emphasised that investing in mental health services for young people can yield long-term economic and health benefits.
The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Right Honourable Patricia Scotland, emphasised the shared responsibility to address mental health challenges within communities and acknowledged the support from the Commonwealth in this endeavour. She stated, “It is our collective responsibility to address and combat the challenges of mental health in our communities.”
A PMNCH side event highlighted the need to prioritise adolescent well-being and increase momentum for the Global Forum for Adolescents and the 1.8 Billion Young People for Change. During the event, Dr. Venkatraman Chandra- Mouli from the WHO/Human Reproduction Programme emphasised the importance of incorporating mental health into sexual and reproductive health programs for young people. He further recommended that mental health awareness be included as part of contraceptive counselling. The event also called for alignment with the goals of the “What Young People Want Initiative”, which offers an additional opportunity to continue the dialogue and actively pursue commitments to improve mental health services for youth beyond the WHA.
Integrating mental health accelerates all progress– towards UHC, and in PPR and TB programmes
Universal Health Coverage (UHC) dominated much of WHA76, especially as the global community prepares for the high level meeting (HLM) on UHC in September 2023. While there was a collective commitment to reorienting health systems to focus more on primary health care (PHC), actualising this will require a shift in the global health architecture and addressing power imbalances in priority setting and decision making. Importantly, mental health was recognized as a shared responsibility and cross-cutting issue critical to delivering effective PHC. However, moving forward UnitedGMH will be working with partners to help ensure removal of the inefficiencies created by the fragmentation of global health initiatives and their operating and funding procedures. Only with a coordinated, comprehensive approach can we truly achieve UHC.
Conversations during WHA76 were positioned as a way to build momentum in advance of the UN HLM on TB in September 2023. Discussions focused on key areas such as diagnostics and vaccines that CSOs felt were lacking in the current draft of the HLM political declaration. Despite growing calls for UHC, underpinned by strong PHC and the rhetoric of integration, traditional disease silos remain. It will indeed take time and persistence to break these down. UnitedGMH remains committed to integrated, people-centred health services at all levels.
Build on what we agree upon
Reflecting on the significant impact of COVID-19, there is agreement amongst stakeholders, not just in WHA76 but also during the HLM multi-stakeholder hearings in New York, that mental health and psychosocial support is essential.
At WHA we saw that while there is a strong global and national interest in ensuring mental health interventions are prioritised, now is the time to leverage this enabling environment to ensure interest translates into commitment and action.