World Health Assembly: putting mental health on the agenda
Dr. Shekhar Saxena, WHO director of mental health and substance abuse, at the Palais de Nations in Geneva during the 66th World Health Assembly. (Jennifer Yang/Toronto Star)
A major topic and agenda item at this year's World Health Assembly is non-communicable diseases (NCDs), or what some people refer to as "lifestyle" diseases — things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease.
Every year, NCDs kill 14.2 million people between the ages of 30 and 69 — 85 per cent of whom live in the developing world. Yet, NCDs were left out of the Millenium Development Goals and some feel these diseases have been abandoned in the "wilderness" of the global health agenda.
But if NCDs are in the wilderness, then global mental health has been wandering in a kind of "double wilderness," according to Dr. Shekhar Saxena, WHO's director of mental health and substance abuse. Even within the NCD umbrella, it has been difficult to make mental health a priority, Saxena says — the majority of countries spend less than 2 per cent on mental health issues but they cause 14 per cent of the overall burden of disease. (Mental health, as defined by WHO, also includes substance abuse issues.)
"Mental health has been ignored by policy makers and by communities for far too long," Saxena said Monday in an interview at the Palais de Nations during the 66th World Health Assembly.
"It was not part of the MDGs and even when NCDs were brought on the agenda in the UN general assembly in 2011, mental disorders were not explicitly included in the agenda. However, the world is waking up very well in increasing the importance of mental health."
This is the first time WHO has developed a mental health plan for global use, Saxena says — and it was put together in a mere nine months. "Member states felt that this issue is so important that there’s no time to lose," he says.
This week, a draft plan for mental health be put before member states at the World Health Assembly, with four objectives:
1) strengthen leadership and governance for mental health2) provide comprehensive mental health and social care in communities3) implement promotion and prevention strategies4) strengthen information systems and evidence and research
Saxena is hopeful the plan will be adopted at the World Health Assembly — but the biggest challenge lies beyond. Rustling up the necessary funding will be challenging in these times of economic hardship and contracting budgets, he acknowledges.
But for Saxena, the difficult economic climate only means that a global mental health plan has never been more necessary.
"The timing (of the plan) is bad in terms of the decrease in the availability of money — but good in terms of a better realization of the mental health issues during an economic downturn," he says. "If 50 per cent of young people have no jobs, will they face mental health problems? The answer is yes."
"When resources are less, the need for mental health care is even larger."
Correction: The above post has been changed to say that the majority of countries spend less than 2 per cent on mental health issues, not 20 per cent.
Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. This week she is blogging from Geneva, where she is attending the World Health Assembly under a UN Foundation press fellowship. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar