UNGA High-Level Week, 2023

By James Sale , Director of Policy, Advocacy and Financing

UnitedGMH team at UNGA78 in New York.

UnitedGMH team at UNGA78 in New York.

In the five years I have been following mental health at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), this year’s High-Level Week was the busiest, and most positive for the issue of mental health. The UNGA resolution on mental health earlier in the year put mental health firmly on the agenda in the build-up to the three health-related High-Level Meetings (pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, tuberculosis, and universal health coverage). The three meetings took place last week alongside many mental health side events. It feels as though the international community is becoming increasingly convinced of the importance of mental health. 

As well as this awareness and knowledge of mental health as a stand-alone issue, maybe more exciting were the, albeit few, discussions of how mental health intersects with a range of social and economic development issues, spanning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, it is clear that governments, global institutions, service providers, and civil society outside of the mental health space are acknowledging the need for relative parity of physical and mental health. We are making progress on mental health not solely being viewed as a disease type that belongs in a sub-sector of health systems but as an integral and interwoven part of effective and person-centred healthcare. 

We cannot continue to separate physical and mental health. A key route to parity is the integration of mental health and physical health services. Not only will this lead to better mental health – as well as positive impacts on areas such as economies – but the integration of even basic mental health measures within health programming will lead to improved physical health outcomes. For example, in Tuberculosis (TB) services mental health integration could lead to millions of TB cases being avoided. Now this is widely understood, governments from across the world committed to taking steps to protect and care for the mental health of those at risk of or living with TB at last week’s HLM TB.  

As we embark on this journey, let us recall the profound wisdom enshrined in the WHO constitution back in 1948, recognising health as a state of complete, physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. Emphasis on mental health. Even back in 1948 it was recognised as one of the key for health and wellbeing. Now let us turn our attention to addressing mental health through integrated PHC services. Ms Safiyya Mohamed Saeed Hon Deputy Ministry of Health Maldives

The UNGA High-Level week saw a range of events paying special attention to the mental health and well-being of young people. One was a pledging event hosted by the Clinton Global Health Initiative involving a range of donors including Fondation Botnar, MTV and the Born This Way Foundation. A second was the Mental Health for All event organised by the governments of Belgium and Bhutan, UNICEF, WHO and ourselves. Heads of state, senior politicians, and the UN agencies spoke of our collective responsibility to ensure young people are supported to reach their right to the highest attainable level of mental health. Crucially UnitedGMH ensured the stage was shared with young mental health champions such as Judah Njoroge who, as ever, stole the show

We cannot overlook the impact the past three years have had on mental health (Government representative of the United States of America). 

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance and fragility of mental health during crises. This was acknowledged in the HLM on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, and UnitedGMH CEO Sarah Kline was called on to address a session of the HLM to reinforce these points. What is more, governments agreed to act upon this. 

Throughout last week in New York, there was the perennial pessimism of international political processes and the relevance of these to the individuals they are designed to support. Will what is said in New York be done in Santiago, London, Abuja, New Delhi, and Apia? It will not be immediately. But it is critical to lasting change that at every level from the global to the community understanding grows, opinions change, and action is delivered. It is our collective responsibility as civil society and as individual mental health advocates to ensure that it is.