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Mental health is a universal human right

dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia

This year’s World Mental Health Day theme, Mental Health is a Universal Human Right, calls on WHO, Member States and partners to accelerate efforts in the field of mental health in a human rights-based approach.

The focus of human rights has historically been on needs such as food, shelter and health care. However, mental health is a key pillar for people’s well-being. Recognizing that mental health is a universal human right means recognizing the relationship between mental health and overall quality of life.

Mental health, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to contribute to his community. It is not just the absence of mental disorders, but a positive state of mental and emotional well-being. This definition is in line with the broader concept of human rights as not only freedom from harm, but also the freedom to lead a fulfilled life.

Thus, every individual, regardless of place, occupation or identity, has the right to achieve the highest possible level of mental well-being. These include the right to protection from mental health risks, access to mental health care that is easily accessible, easily accessible and of high quality, and the right to freedom and inclusion in their community.

It is also crucial to recognize that mental health is linked to various aspects of life, including education, employment, housing and participation in society. A person’s mental well-being affects their ability to exercise other rights, such as the right to education and the right to work. When mental health is protected, individuals are better equipped for meaningful inclusion in society.

For mental health to be recognized as a universal human right, there must be a transformation of social attitudes and government policies. All necessary steps should be taken to protect the population from the risks of mental health conditions that include cross-cutting issues such as climate change, humanitarian emergencies, social factors such as inequality and poverty. Awareness and education are needed to destigmatize mental health issues. Discrimination and stigma are the main barriers that prevent individuals from seeking help and support. Also, mental health services and facilities must be available to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, location, or other circumstances.

Despite mental health being central to our overall health and well-being, one in seven people live with a mental health problem in the countries of the WHO South-East Asia region. Mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders and self-harm (MNSS) account for 23% of all years lived with disability (YLD) in this region. Anxiety and depressive disorders were the most common conditions among men and women, accounting for nearly 50% of the total number of people living with mental disorders in the WHO South-East Asia region.

The WHO Regional Office for South-East Asia continued to work with its partners to ensure that mental health is valued, promoted and protected.

Rights-oriented services are a key component of the Paro Declaration by the Ministers of Health of Member States at the Seventy-fifth Session of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia on Universal Access to People-Centred Mental Health Care and Services adopted by WHO Member States of South-East Asia in September 2022 Access to human rights and gender equality for mental health program planning and implementation and service delivery is also a cross-cutting principle of the newly launched World Health Organization Mental Health Action Plan for the South-East WHO Asia Region, 2023-2030.

To strengthen the scale-up of community-based mental health services that are aligned with national and international human rights standards, WHO SEARO convened a regional workshop on: “Scale-up of community-based mental health services in the WHO South-East Asia region: scaling up care for action”, in Colombo , Sri Lanka, 20.-22. June 2023

Several Member States have updated their mental health policies and laws to include components of international human rights instruments, and other Member States are in the process of incorporating these components. Significant progress has been made in providing access to mental health services through the strengthening of primary health care and community mental health services in several countries. WHO will continue to support countries to further strengthen such services.

In 2023, WHO SEARO published an interactive dashboard containing regional and country epidemiological data and burden data was also published in 2023 to better monitor the mental health situation in the region.

Priority is given to speeding up and strengthening the operationalization of aspects of human rights and mental health. One approach being taken is to support countries in their efforts to deinstitutionalize, move away from psychiatric hospitals and shift the primary focus of mental health treatment and care to the community level. Another approach used is to provide a platform for those with mental health experience, their families and carers to come together and discuss their perspectives with mental health and social care program planners and agree a way forward and draft a bill of rights.

In conclusion, mental health is undoubtedly a universal human right. Just as the right to physical health is a fundamental aspect of human dignity, the right to mental health is equally essential.

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