The role of mental health in global sustainable development

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a “shared blueprint” for global action to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world. Mental health represents an important pillar in this effort because, as recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), “there can be no health or sustainable development without mental health”.

The decision-making body of the WHO – the World Health Assembly (WHA) – will meet in May. Mental health deserves a place at the top of the agenda. Because, despite the progress made in some countries, there is still a long way to go to achieve UN SDG Goal 3 to “promote[ing] well-being for all at all ages.

According to the WHO Mental Health Atlas 2020, only 25% of the organization’s members have integrated mental health into their health care systems. This means that diagnosis, treatment and care remain out of reach for the vast majority of the 280 million people suffering from depression worldwide.

Worldwide, more than two-thirds of people with mental disorders do not receive the care they need. As Project Hope points out, in low- and middle-income countries, up to 85% of people with mental disorders go untreated. Additionally, the economic burden of mental illness for most countries is 4% of GDP, yet their investment in research for better diagnostics and treatment can amount to less than 0.5% of GDP.

Even the world’s most developed countries are struggling to make progress. In the United States, 57% of people with mental illness go untreated. And among those who are seeking treatment, a third fear being stigmatized by friends, colleagues or others.

Clearly, the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the global mental health crisis. According to a study published in The Lancet, areas hardest hit by the virus have seen a dramatic increase in depression and anxiety. In total, the authors estimated that COVID-19 generated a Additional 53.2 million cases of depressive disorder and 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder.

Organizational leaders who often manage global workforces can have a major impact on the mental health and general well-being of workers around the world in their regional offices.

It starts with creating a supportive culture free of stigma that encourages employees to ask for help when they need it. This includes ensuring that appropriate mental health resources, appropriate to geography and region, are widely available and easily accessible. And that means training supervisors to recognize the warning signs of workers who may be struggling with mental health issues and directing them to the appropriate support systems.

Companies cannot do it alone. Ultimately, effective global action requires a global response. Leading organizations and government agencies must come together to use their influence to promote evidence-based, cost-effective and widely accessible mental health solutions.

As the WHO points out, many mental health conditions can be treated at relatively low cost. Yet the percentage of people around the world getting the care they need remains shockingly low, even as the mental health crisis continues to grow in a world rocked by Covid.

Words and commitments on mental health from the UN and WHO are welcome and needed. It is time to take them to the next level by stimulating concerted action on a global scale. The May 2022 World Health Assembly is a great place to start.

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