Springboard for change: Signs mental health is slowly moving up the global agenda
By Muhammad Ali Hasnian, Senior Officer, United for Global Mental Health
This year’s World Health Organisation’s Executive Board meeting was not quite what we’d hoped but there were some positive signs.
The meeting – which ran from 30 January to 7 February – saw representatives from all 194 member states gather in Geneva to lay the groundwork for the World Health Assembly (WHA) and give an insight into their health priorities in 2023.
Few and far between
While several key themes emerged for health systems – such as consensus on the importance of primary health care and a well-trained, well-equipped workforce – references to mental health were few and far between.
The South Korean and Tanzanian governments stressed the importance of integrating mental health into primary health care and community-based care.
“Tanzania would like the secretariat to increase its investment in mental health and build into primary health care services mental health care, particularly investing in community healthcare workers.”
However, the WHO Executive Board’s recommendations to the high-level meeting on UHC made just one brief mention of mental health:
“Reaffirming the right of every human being, without distinction of any kind, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
Similarly, the Director General Report, ‘Integrated Emergency, Critical and Operative Care for Universal Health Coverage and Protection from Health Emergencies’ only name-checked mental health in the context of the need for timely, accessible, well-organised, safe and high-quality emergency, critical and operative care.
South America carries the flag
South America carried the flag for mental health during the plenaries. Brazil highlighted its renewed commitment to mental health under its national mental health agenda, and Argentina underscored mental health as a priority issue, mentioning the upcoming fifth Global Mental Health Summit to be hosted in Buenos Aires.
“Our delegation would like to focus on mental health which we consider a priority. We support and attach top priority to the objectives of the WHO Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030 and in that context, we strengthened national strategies during the pandemic and improved coordination mechanisms for MHPSS in emergencies.” – Delegate of Argentina
During discussions on cost-effective NCD prevention and control, both Argentina and Norway (on behalf of the Nordic countries) emphasised the importance of integrating mental health into the policy options.
“We believe that fully incorporating evidence-based interventions on mental health would strengthen the impact of policy options on NCDs.” – Delegate of Norway
The WHO Executive Board’s calls for the Director General to submit an updated menu of policy options and cost-effective interventions on NCDs at the 80th WHA should be seen as an opportunity for mental health advocates.
Mental health was also discussed in the context of rehabilitation services, refugees and violence against children. Civil society representatives Medicus Mundi International called for a broadened definition of violence against children to include mental health.
The Peru delegation emphasised the need for more focus on mental health in response to violence against children.
“Violence affects the mental health of children and the way in which they behave in society; one of the main aspects that the WHO needs to emphasise… is giving more focus to mental health of children who were victims of violence.” – Delegate of Peru
A springboard for change
In the wake of the WHO Executive Board meeting, it seems the pandemic is now taking a back seat. Focus has shifted to developing resilient health systems, reforming the global health architecture and responding to health emergencies, though much with a view mitigate future global health emergencies.
UHC underpins all of these areas and will be a crucial point of discussion at upcoming global moments such as the G7, the WHA and the UN General Assembly.
The WHO Executive Board meeting shows that, while there is a long way to go, champions for mental health on the global stage are steadily growing and it is increasingly being treated as a cross-cutting issue.
This provides mental health advocates with the springboard to push for mental health’s meaningful inclusion in global commitments at a range of key global political moments in 2023. A commitment to the full integration of mental health into UHC is a priority.