Around the world, some of the “treatments” for mental illness include being chained, isolated in a prison cell and physically abused. These human rights violations are a serious crisis: a quarter of the world’s population will experience mental illness in their lifetime, and 85% of them live in low- and middle-income countries.
The United Nations must address this crisis by prioritizing mental health as it decides what items will become Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will drive the global agenda for years to come. Expert advisors will deliberate this week about whether mental health should be something the UN monitors and prioritizes in upcoming years. In late September, UN member states will use those recommendations to vote on the final goals, which will frame their development policies and investment decisions for the next 15 years.
What the UN decides could make a huge impact on the more than 450 million people around the world who are struggling with mental illness right now. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which expire this year, spurred national governments, international donors and others to meet the goal of cutting extreme poverty by half, while also getting more girls into school, reducing child mortality and other important advancements. It represents the most successful global development campaign ever. The same will be true for the next set of goals.
In the current draft of the SDGs, mental health is included in the preamble as one of the target goals. This is an important breakthrough in helping to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness face all over the world.
But mental health has not yet been included in the indicators that will be used to monitor and measure progress toward meeting these global goals. This omission should be of grave concern to everyone, because targets without measurements or accountability are toothless. Mental health must be specifically included in the final indicators. If it is not, the reference to mental health will be nothing more than lip service.
Including mental health in the indicators will not increase administrative burdens. The two indicators that are recommended for inclusion – reducing suicide rates and improving treatment coverage for severe mental illness – are already being tracked by the World Health Organization. Inclusion of these indicators will simply utilize the data that the WHO is collecting to continue the monitoring of mental health in UN member states.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and a growing number of international experts have called for the inclusion of mental health in the SDGs. In a recent speech, Annan noted that depression was the “leading cause of disability in the world” and added a further cause for concern: “women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men. With maternal mental health a substantial influence on growth during childhood, depression can cast its shadow from one generation to the next.”
For adults and children, in both the developed and the developing worlds, an individual’s mental wellbeing is inextricably linked with her ability to go to school, work and care for a family and make meaningful contributions to her community. For this reason, if the United Nations is committed to making progress across all of its goals – from eradicating poverty to promoting lifelong learning to combatting climate change – it will include mental health indicators in the final Sustainable Development Goals.
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 2 September 2015.