Wellbeing and Mental Health

Why this is the year we must take action on mental health

Young Jordanians splash and play in a public fountain in the centre of Amman July 29,2000 as hundreds of local citizens rushed to cool down in public swimming pools as a heat wave struck the kingdom where temperatures reached 42 degrees Celsius, at least 9 nine degrees above the national average for the time of the year.

Preventing poor mental health, especially in young people, should be just as important as treating it Image: Reuters

Elisha London
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Prospira Global
Peter Varnum
Project Lead, Global Health and Healthcare, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The global mental health crisis could cost the world $16 trillion by 2030. With mental disorders on the rise in every country in the world, nowhere is immune.

Poor mental health stops employees from reaching their full potential and forces them to take more sick days, stunting productivity and economic growth. This is also a challenge with society-wide ramifications. Loneliness and isolation affect many of the most vulnerable among us. People with serious conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are especially likely to be marginalised by their communities. Those with the most severe conditions pay with their lives, dying prematurely – as much as two decades before their time.

Fortunately, coming into Davos this year we are riding a sea change in how the world approaches mental health.

At the highest levels of government, private sector and civil society, leaders are stepping up to commit to promoting positive dialogues around mental health. This means culture shifts in our shared spaces: in the workplace, in schools and in communities. And this momentum is coming from both the southern and northern hemispheres.


Over the course of 2018, a mental health initiative from Zimbabwe, the Friendship Bench, made its way from Harare to conferences in the UK and Qatar. The Friendship Bench programme trains grandmothers to support people with mental health conditions and talk about how to find solutions to their problems. This relatively simple, highly effective solution is an inspiring example of south-north knowledge transfer: New York City has adapted the concept for its own streets. The Friendship Bench will be making an appearance at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, welcoming leaders to come and sit on it, and to discuss their commitment to improving mental health in their organisations and around the world.

One of the stops on the Bench’s travels was the first-ever Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit in London, which generated recommendations for ministers and a global declaration on achieving equality for mental health. The Summit also launched the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development, which systematically made the case that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are not achievable without making vast improvements to the treatment, prevention and promotion of mental health. No one-time flash in the pan, the now-annual Summit will take place again in 2019, this time in the Netherlands.

Mental health was also a key topic at another, even larger, global gathering in 2018: the UN General Assembly. The issue was featured prominently over the course of the High-level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases, held during the Assembly. In addition, the governments of Canada, Ecuador, Belgium, Bahrain and the Netherlands all came together with United for Global Mental Health at a history-making side event, uniting behind the slogan that it was “Time to Act on Global Mental Health”. To make the event a reality, governments collaborated with philanthropic organisations; on the day, it was co-chaired by young people and gave a prominent platform to people with lived experiences.

This type of multi-stakeholder endeavour is exactly what we need to see more of in 2019 and beyond. At this year’s Annual Meeting, the World Economic Forum will be running an ambitious mental health programme that we hope will influence the public and private sectors, as well as civil society. Fundamentally, we want to help steer a shift in how societies as a whole view and manage mental health to achieve the objectives already agreed by leaders as part of the WHO’s Global Action Plan on Mental Health developed in 2013, and the vision set out by the Lancet Commission.

Mental health problems are common all over the world Image: Our World in Data

To achieve this, we propose the following overarching objectives;

The treatment of mental ill-health should continue to be a pillar of responses globally, but we should strive just as hard to prevent it. Stopping the likes of depression and anxiety before they take root will require a recalibration of cultures the world over. With evidence showing that youth intervention is linked to higher lifelong wellbeing, preventative mechanisms that tackle mental ill-health early are crucial.

Skill-building towards better understanding and management of mental health should be a focus for everyone. This skill-building can take place in schools and the workplace. For instance, we need to recognise skills like empathy, active listening, resilience and emotional intelligence as vital for success in the 21st century. In the workplace, company leaders should seek to break down stigma by talking about mental health themselves, and setting up structures through which their employees can access support services.

Global, multisectoral collaboration is key to success in 2019. The recent Lancet Commission provides guidance on principles and actions for the world’s leaders to follow and cites partnerships as a key success factor. Initiatives like the City Mental Health Alliance, One Mind Initiative at Work, EU’s ‘Mental Health in the Workplace’ challenge and ‘Mental Health At Work’, which is curated by mental health charity Mind and supported by The Royal Foundation in the UK, are all working to improve mental health at work and establish it as a ‘boardroom issue’. We must support, learn from and build upon initiatives like this so that organisations of all shapes and sizes can hone their own particular ways of promoting mental health.

Have you read?

The global momentum around mental health offers exciting opportunities, but it also needs to be properly harnessed. Key milestones of the 2019 calendar should be treated as deadlines, not just events. This year’s Annual Meeting serves as a workshop for building accountability mechanisms, so that the world knows exactly what companies, countries, international organisations and other actors are meant to have achieved by the World Health Assembly in May, by the UN General Assembly in September, and by the 2020 iteration of the Annual Meeting.

We are confident that the common goals being crafted by the global mental health community will continue to be refined at Davos. Given the groundswell of commitment, these goals will be further fleshed out over the course of 2019, as targets are agreed, accountability channels established and resources lined up.

Strong foundations for sweeping change have been laid in 2018. Beyond that, our hope is that mental health will gather further momentum in 2019 and reach a first apex of action in 2020 - building on all that’s already been achieved, and moving closer towards a world where everyone, everywhere has someone to turn to when their mental health needs support.

It is time to act on mental health.

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