Health & wellbeing

In a significant move, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared mental health as a universal human right, emphasizing the need for a human-rights based approach in addressing mental health issues. The announcement was made by Poonam Khetrapal, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia, on the occasion of World Mental Health Day.

Historically, human rights have focused on essential needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. However, mental health has been recognized as a critical pillar for human well-being.

According to WHO's definition, mental health is a state of well-being where an individual realizes their abilities, copes with life's stresses, works productively, and contributes to their community. It's not just the absence of mental disorders but a positive state of mental and emotional well-being. This perspective aligns mental health with the broader conception of human rights, emphasizing the freedom to lead a fulfilling life.

Khetrapal stressed that regardless of location, occupation, or identity, every individual is entitled to achieve the highest attainable level of mental well-being. This includes safeguarding oneself from mental health risks, ensuring access to high-quality mental health care, and promoting freedom and involvement within communities. Mental health intersects with various aspects of life such as education, employment, housing, and social participation. Protecting mental health enables individuals to exercise other rights effectively.

To establish mental health as a universal human right, societal attitudes and government policies must transform. Awareness and education are crucial to destigmatize mental health issues. Discrimination and stigma often prevent individuals from seeking help and support. Accessible mental health services and facilities are essential, irrespective of socioeconomic status or location.

Despite the vital role mental health plays in overall well-being, one in seven people in countries of the WHO South-East Asia Region are living with mental health conditions. Anxiety and depressive disorders are the most common conditions, contributing to almost half of the total number of people living with mental disorders in the region.

WHO's South-East Asia Regional Office, in collaboration with its partners, continues to work toward valuing, promoting, and protecting mental health. The organization emphasizes a human rights approach and gender equity in planning and implementing mental health programs and service delivery. The recently launched WHO Mental Health Action Plan for the WHO South-East Asia Region (2023-2030) incorporates these principles.

To further strengthen mental health services, WHO organized a regional workshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, focusing on expanding community-based mental health services aligned with human rights standards. Several Member States have updated their mental health policies and laws to include international human rights components, and progress has been made in providing access to mental health services through primary care and community-based initiatives.

WHO's efforts in 2023 also saw the publication of an interactive dashboard containing regional and country epidemiological and burden data. This dashboard enhances monitoring of the mental health situation in the region, aiding in evidence-based decision-making.

Two essential approaches are being taken to operationalize human rights and mental health. The first involves supporting countries in their deinstitutionalization efforts, moving away from psychiatric hospitals and focusing on community-level mental health treatment and care. The second approach provides individuals with lived experience of mental health conditions, along with their families and caregivers, a platform to discuss their perspectives with mental health and social care program planners. Together, they draft a charter on their rights, ensuring their voices are heard and respected.

In conclusion, mental health is undeniably a universal human right, as fundamental to human dignity as physical health. The WHO's declaration marks a pivotal moment in the global understanding of mental health, emphasizing the need for inclusive, accessible, and rights-based mental health services for all individuals, regardless of their background or circumstances.