Mental health must be upheld as a universal human right

As multiple crises are putting mental health under pressure, people must be guaranteed the right to better care.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR THE KENNEDY FORUM - Supporters of mental health and substance use disorder reform gather during the DNC in Dilworth Park, Philadelphia, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (Mark Stehle/AP Images for The Kennedy Forum)
Supporters of mental health and substance use disorder reform gather in Dilworth Park, Philadelphia on July 26, 2016 [File: AP/Mark Stehle]

Multiplying and escalating crises are placing ever greater strains on people’s mental health and the services available to support them. From the lingering effects of COVID-19, the uptick in climate-related emergencies and the ongoing impacts of conflict and displacement in many regions, more and more people are suffering. Meanwhile, stigma and discrimination against people with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities continue in our schools, workplaces and communities.

With as many as one billion people – one in eight of us – living with a mental health condition, and a persistent history of under-investment in mental health services, the gap between the need for and availability of quality care and support can be expected to widen further. This will have predictable consequences for the health, happiness and wellbeing of millions of people.

COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in mental health systems worldwide, exacerbating existing issues and revealing new ones. In Chile, as in many countries, the pandemic’s toll on mental health has been significant. Isolation, uncertainty and disruptions to daily life took a toll on individuals and communities, highlighting the importance of resilient support systems.

Given all that has happened this century, we must transform how we think and act on mental health to advance it for the better. We need to change our attitudes so that mental health is prioritised as an integral part of our health and wellbeing, as well as a basic human right and a critical contributor to public health, social wellbeing, and sustainable development.

We must strengthen the delivery of mental healthcare services so that the full spectrum of mental health needs is met through a community-based network of accessible, affordable, and quality services and support.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is working side by side with countries to achieve this. WHO’s Special Initiative for Mental Health is a good example of how scaling up capacity at the primary healthcare level can improve access to services for the people who need them most. Since 2019, the Special Initiative for Mental Health has extended access to local mental health services, where previously there were none, to 40 million people across nine participating countries.

While the health sector has much to contribute, it cannot do this alone. As discussed by ministers at the Global Summit on Mental Health hosted by the government of Argentina earlier this month, transforming mental healthcare calls for a whole-of-government and whole-of society approach to mental health promotion, protection and care.

We must also reshape the environments that influence mental health in ways that reduce risks and strengthen protective factors so that everyone, no matter who they are, has an equal opportunity to thrive and reach the highest attainable level of mental health and wellbeing.

In Chile, the government has taken on the challenge that no one should ever again be alone facing their mental health needs. To achieve this aim, the “Construyendo Salud Mental” (Building Mental Health) strategy is strengthening leadership in mental health across all sectors, improving service delivery, enhancing support in emergencies, and bolstering data, evidence and research in this field. A crucial factor is to integrate mental health services into primary healthcare and community centres, allowing a comprehensive approach together with social services at municipal levels.

It also aims to prevent suicide, which is a major public health problem, given the high burden among young people worldwide, with suicide now the second leading cause of death in 15 to 24-year-olds.

Ambitious strategies to protect and enhance mental health require new levels of political leadership and commitment and much stronger allocations of resources across health and other sectors. As has been seen in Chile, for example, longstanding attention and commitment to public mental health can generate real and sizeable benefits over time.

But there are still too many countries where more needs to be done to get people the appropriate and quality care they need.

As we marked World Mental Health Day last week, which was focused on upholding mental health as a human right, it is important to remember just how many people still experience coercion, abuse and neglect in mental health services, and are denied the right to have a say in their treatment.

We have a collective responsibility to ensure that mental health treatment and services respect people’s human rights and support their recovery. To assist countries in this, WHO and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have just launched transformative new guidance on mental health, human rights and legislation, which supports countries to ensure their mental health laws and policies are in line with international human rights standards.

We call for people and communities to recognise mental health as a universal human right to improve knowledge, raise awareness, and drive actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health, and on governments to take the steps needed to make the highest attainable level of mental health reachable by all.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.