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Where is mental health in the SDGs?

Where is mental health in the SDGs?

By Minto Felix

A life lost anywhere in the world due to suicide is a tragedy and a scenario that none of us should ever accept. However, it is especially troubling that low-income countries in Asia and the Pacific have the highest burden of suicide in the world. Despite significant challenges in obtaining accurate data from these countries and issues of stigma around this issue, the most conservative of these estimates reveals a crisis of human loss facing the world. Yet, it’s not just suicides we should be alarmed by.

The entire way in which the global community engages with mental health requires reform.

Currently, it is approximated that around 30% of the population worldwide is impacted by some level of mental ill health, ranging from moderate levels of anxiety to chronic, lifelong depression. Further, depression is projected to be the second-highest contributor to the disease burden in middle-income countries and the third highest in low-income countries by 2030.

Yet the sad reality remains that, for most people experiencing mental ill health, timely access to quality care remains well out of reach–especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised. Poverty and limited education unequivocally impact a person’s ability to lead productive a life, but also are key conditions for mental health issues to emerge. And when they do, individuals in developing countries are typically unable to access the health services they require, and in some instances face cultural attitudes that can exacerbate existing illnesses.

Given the moral, social and economic imperative to improve mental health for the world’s population, it is bewildering that these conditions are not given the attention they urgently warrant in the soon-to-be-launched Global Goals for Sustainable Development (SDGs). The SDGs are the shared commitment of the entire world to improve quality of life, sustain the planet and end poverty in all its forms. Yet, they lack any substantive goals or targets to achieve progress in the mental health arena. This must change.

Though the causes of mental ill health are diverse and the solutions many, the UN should articulate significant and unifying goals through this global agenda. Evidence has long suggested that many countries need to increase the level of national spending on mental health. In low-income countries, where 12–20% of the population is experiencing mental ill health, it is untenable that only 0.5% of total health expenditure is spent on mental health.

Policymakers have also repeatedly called for an explicit target to reduce the number of suicides worldwide–it is believed that such a concerted focus would bring about better policies and strategies to halt and reverse the trend of deaths. Poor mental health infrastructure is by no means a challenge for low-income countries alone–rising global powers like India and China have among the most underdeveloped systems for managing mental health. The quest for better mental health is a shared area of concern and need for low- and high-income countries alike.

As it currently stands, the SDGs make one reference to mental health, which calls on the global community to “promote mental health and wellbeing.” This simply does not go far enough. A clear goal is one that specifies the direction of change that is being sought and can bring about demonstrable results, as can be seen in goals such as the “reduction of the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100, 000 live births.” Would we be satisfied if that goal was simply “reduce maternal mortality”? Mental health deserves the same bold aspirations and commitment as the other areas. The SDGs should, at a minimum, call on countries to do the following:

  • Increase the coverage of mental health services: ensure that 10% of the government’s health budget is dedicated to mental health care.
  • End the preventable loss of life: commit to a year-to-year reduction in deaths by suicide.
  • Eradicate a culture of shame and stigmatisation:, improve understanding of mental illness and promote help seeking-behaviour through nationwide and global efforts.

We need to ensure that improving the lives of the hundreds of millions of people living with mental illness is a well-defined global pursuit, in line with the other goals articulated in the SDGs and central to the global agenda. We have the plans in place, but now require the political will to make it a reality.

Minto Felix is the Mental Health Programs Coordinator at Monash University and a mental health campaigner at Australians for Mental Health. He was previously the Chief Operations Officer at Oaktree, and holds degrees in Psychology and Health Administration from Monash. You can also follow Minto on Twitter.

Featured image shows a boy with his head in his hands. Photo from Flickr.

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One thought on “Where is mental health in the SDGs?

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