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Mental health, gender equality and human rights: An essential convergence

UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Office Statement for World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2020

Mental health is the foundation for the well-being and effective functioning of all individuals, everywhere. We have long known there are inseparable links between mental and physical health; the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that anew.   

Beyond recognising mental health as a fundamental aspect of health as a human right, studies indicate that high levels of mental disorders present a major barrier to the socio-economic development of countries. Numerous studies have clearly shown the loss of productivity attributable to mental health challenges and the resulting negative impact on a country’s progress. 

Gender plays a large role in the prevalence of mental disorders, with women reporting on average 1.5 - 2 times higher rates of mood disorders, depression and anxiety compared to men. Adolescents and women who have a history of trauma and abuse are especially vulnerable. For example, these two groups have been identified in South-east Asia to most likely attempt suicide. 

In the past several months, the world has faced the health threat of COVID-19, which has not only put immense pressure on health systems but also exposed decades of mental health neglect. The pandemic has fuelled mental distress, anxiety and fear owing to the spread of the virus, physical distancing and isolation, economic and social downturns, and an increase in gender-based violence and harmful practices.

This crisis is a wake-up call - providing governments and civil society alike an opportunity to confront reality instead of sweeping it under the carpet, enabling multiple stakeholders to come together to strengthen and improve mental health programmes and services. We must seize this moment.

At UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, we are working to intensify our work with development and humanitarian partners to better integrate mental health and psychosocial support into our response to gender-based violence as well as our lifesaving sexual and reproductive health services, and in the education of midwives and other health providers who support women and girls. These efforts have taken on new urgency in response to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We argue that going forward mental health care investments must be all the more directed to develop and strengthen rights-based approaches and practices that are non-violent, peer-led, trauma-informed, community-led, healing and culturally sensitive. Key principles in these efforts include first and foremost dignity and autonomy, followed by social inclusion and participation, equality and non-discrimination, consent and confidentiality, and accountability. 

But for long-term success, we also need to address many of the root causes of mental health challenges, such as the social, political or existential contexts that contribute to a high prevalence of feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and other manifestations of mental distress. 

Equally important, we must openly admit and confront the societal stigma and discrimination attached to mental health issues that all too often create obstacles rather than bring about solutions. By bringing mental health challenges out of the shadows and into the daylight, we can help remove the shame which contributes to so much needless suffering.

And we need to be humble; mental health is complex and much more comprehensive understanding is needed in order not to do more harm than good.

We believe we can do all of this if we come together and work with research institutions and experts that are also guided by evidence, whose work is grounded in human rights and gender equality. This will better inform government policies and investment, opening up new pathways to optimal services across a range of settings, reaching and serving more people including women and adolescents whose health needs, in general, are all too often neglected - and mental health needs all the more so.  

Let’s pledge on World Mental Health Day to prioritise this key pillar as we seek to build back better from the pandemic, empowering millions of our fellow human beings, including women and girls, in the process. In this, we will contribute to fulfilling both the vision of the ICPD Programme of Action, in strengthening rights and choices for all, and that of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals - leaving no one behind.