Mental health at UNGA: now is time to press for action

A wide view of the 96th plenary meeting of the General Assembly. .

A wide view of the 96th plenary meeting of the General Assembly.

I have been a mental health advocate for several years and I can safely say that there is no health without mental health. Well, this used to be the case. 

For too long, mental health has been largely absent from global health sector discussions and where it was mentioned in global political documents and speeches, it would be thrown in at the end of a long list of health disease types – noticeable more for its inclusion, than its absence. 

How mental health fits in and around health systems was hugely misunderstood in the global health sector and solutions were not being supported.

I am in awe of, and so grateful to, the dedicated people across the world who have laid the foundations of change for decades; through their smart and tireless efforts, mental health has risen up the global health agenda and now its importance is being seen. 

And its importance will be seen during the UN General Assembly this September. For the global health sector, this is a particularly important year with three High-Level Meetings where global commitments on health will be made on ‘pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response’, ‘tuberculosis,’ and ‘universal health coverage (UHC);’ with further health commitments at the SDG Summit. 

Each of these meetings will have the attention and engagement of global institutions and governments across the world, with each passing a political declaration to which all governments will have agreed. Although the declarations have not yet been published, United for Global Mental Health along with our partners, have been following negotiations of these closely, and mental health is incorporated throughout all three. The world is taking mental health seriously and it is undoubtedly one of, if not ‘the’ secondary theme for the UN health High-Level Meetings of 2023. 

It has been a long journey to this point. There have been countless Zoom calls, public events, conference rooms, and inches of written persuasion. We have been there in the room across key global moments with highlights including the Multistakeholder Hearings, World Health Assembly, Global Mental Health Action Network Annual Meeting, Small Island and Developing States Summit, and the Women Deliver Conference. 

At these events, mental health advocates have been consistent in their calls for mental health to have relative parity to physical health. We have asked for mental health to be integrated into physical health programmes, that young people’s mental health be prioritised, for mental health care in emergencies, and to build upon previous agreements such as the 2019 UN High-Level Meeting on UHC.

Miroslav Lajcák , President of the seventy-second session of the General Assembly, addresses the interactive hearing held as part of the preparatory process for the high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases.

The international community has heard these calls and responded. 

Throughout the political declarations of this years’ three health High-Level Meetings notable themes include; the right to the highest attainable levels of physical and mental health, integration of mental health through health systems focusing on primary health care, the need for an increased mental health workforce, and prioritising mental health support for the most vulnerable as well as crucially, how we finance this work. This is huge progress on years gone by.    

However, we are far from where we want to be so there is no time to be complacent. As a mental health civil society, we have to hold those with the power to enact these commitments to account. This will ultimately be done by those closest to health systems at national and local levels, but we also have an immediate opportunity to influence national governments and global institutions in New York this September. 

As well as the High-Level Meetings, there will be side events where leaders will be present and speaking; providing space for civil society to call for action. One such event will be the ‘Mental Health For All: Leaving No One Behind’ event; hosted by the Kingdoms of Belgium and Bhutan, WHO, Unicef and United for Global Mental Health, taking place during the UN General Assembly week. 

The event will report on the societal progress that mental health makes and will call for political commitments to be backed up by action. The event will echo our calls for mental health parity, integration, and for countries to pay particular focus to young people. Civil society should take opportunities such as these, to make the international community hear: there is no health without mental health. 

This is an exciting year for mental health, not just in the global health sector but across the world. As a mental health community, we have come a long way and this should be celebrated. Now we need to see this change impact those who need our support for their mental health. Please join us and millions of mental health champions around the world to make this happen. 

Key mental health events at the UN General Assembly High-Level Week

  • ‘Mental Health For All: Leaving No One Behind’ organised by the Government of Belgium, UNICEF, WHO, and United for Global Mental Health, at UNICEF HQ on 19th September. 
  • ‘The Future: Ensuring the health and well-being of adolescents and young people worldwide’, the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, 18th September
  • The STOP TB Innovation Summit will feature mental health in discussions of digital transformation in TB programming, and UNICEF is leading an event looking at the role of the private sector in mental health . 
  • Halftime Talk on “Health and Hope“ hosted by Project Everyone


Up Here is a useful calendar of everything else that is happening in New York during the United Nations General Assembly week, and how you can get involved.