WHO leaders urge for mental health to be a priority

This year it was an historic World Health Assembly for mental health – over half of all member states made statements on what they are doing to address mental health and all member states approved the Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2030.

There is a lot of information to digest but below are two important summaries from the leadership of WHO.

Dr Ren Minghui, Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases

I would like to thank you all for your comments and suggestions for item 18. As planned my response will also cover mental health related comments that you have made during this discussion. On items 13.2 – the political declaration of the high level meeting of the General Assembly, prevention and control of NCDs, all member states have agreed during this assembly that maintaining the state course, provisions and response to the pandemic is not an option. Neither for mental health services.

Even though we hear some good examples, for instance, from Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cuba, Kenya, Spain, and Tunisia, just to name a few, providing mental health services and psychosocial social support in the pandemic response, COVID-19 has exposed too limited investment in mental health preparedness, and infrastructure in all countries before the pandemic.

The most recent poll survey by WHO shows that mental, neurological, and substance use services were the most common services reported as disrupted, particularly services for the most vulnerable groups. There are many other vulnerable groups that would require urgent scaling up of mental health services, now, and for many years to come, including for example, COVID-19 patients and their families, health workers and their frontline responders, people living in humanitarian settings, people with pre existing mental neurological and substance use conditions, young people, and older elders.

Mental health disorders cause significant economic, and total, health burden due to lost economic output and the link between mental health disorders, and potentially fatal conditions, including communicable and non communicable disease. COVID-19 is likely to increase this burden and lead to development exacerbations, and relapse of a range of mental disorders.

WHO has been playing a leading role in mental health emergencies, during the last two decades with inter-agency coordination, setting norms and standards, and supporting countries operations in mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies. The WHO Secretariat responded earlier to the mental health consequences of a pandemic, with global inter-agency mental health and psychosocial support, coordination, and published resources since February 2020. The resources developed by the WHO Secretariat covers a wide range of the population’s needs, and various age groups, and was translated into dozens of languages, and contributed to the shaping of good practice in numerous countries.

Last year together with standby partners WHO launched the first interagency rapid mechanism to deploy experts of mental health and psychosocial support to more than 20 countries.

Today, I want to thank Thailand for initiating this discussion, and the development of EB decision 140A3 emphasising timely and quality provision of a full range of mental health services and psychosocial support, as an integral part of a health system, and as a part of a whole of society approach. Thank you to the Netherlands, for your support in hosting a high level meeting on mental health and psychosocial support – we are looking forward to the productive meeting and discussion on June, 11. Investment in human and financial resources for the full implementation of a comprehensive updated mental health action plan until 2030, to build resilient mental health systems, preparedness for future emergencies, and to be able to respond to the current crisis is our joint way forward to achieve the decision.

Thank you, Japan, for what you highlight – we can’t quote global health without mental health. We will launch live lives initiative for suicide prevention next month and are most grateful for your support.

Thank you, Slovenia, and Colombia for mentioning alcohol and substance use, which are very important elements in the mental health agenda. As you may recall the decision EB 146 14 requested the DG, to develop an action plan on alcohol for consideration by the 75th World Health Assembly through the 105th EB 2022 – now the action plan is under development, in consultation with a broad range of stakeholders as requested. Six regional consultations with member states have been recently conducted and a first draft of the action plan will be made available for another round of technical consultation next month. A web based consultation and working documents for the action plan has received 253 submissions with more than 1300 pages of text.

I thank you all for your inputs. The global initiative for alcohol policy is currently being rolled out and made available for all countries. We also hear your concern on the secretariats capacity and will continue to work with donors and partners to ensure the WHO technical capacity particularly in the regional and country levels could be strengthened in order to better provide technical support to promote and expand access to integrated evidence based primary and community mental health services and psycho-social support. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic response, and for future public health emergencies, preparedness, response and recovery is our joint vision, and we plan for building back better, and sustainable mental health services accessible to everyone, everywhere.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General

As you know, one day, this pandemic will be over. But many of the psychosocial and psychological scars linked to the pandemic will stay with us for a long, long time.

What’s happening is mass trauma, because the whole world was affected. So paying attention to mental health will be very very central, and that’s why we’re working on all levels, all regions and country offices to strengthen the things we do, especially with regard to mental health. And that’s what I would like to stress. Please, let’s give mental health a serious priority, it has to be central.

The impact of this pandemic on mental health is very, very palpable. And I know it has affected the majority of the world’s population. Even before COVID we had been saying no health without mental health, but now it’s even more clear, because of the impact of the pandemic not because it directly impacts health, but it also, as you know, impacts livelihoods and that’s why it’s impacting mental health – through both direct and indirect impacts. So that’s the only thing I’d like to underline.


Want to read more about mental health at this year’s World Health Assembly? Head to the links below for our coverage of the session.

  • Analysis: Updates to WHO Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan – by Sarah Kline
  • Mental Health Makes History at the 74th World Health Assembly – by Anna Watkins
  • Mental Health at the 74th World Health Assembly – a summary