Wellbeing and Mental Health

We must match our talk about mental health with action

Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - RC189E5E9140

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained why her government is creating the world’s first well-being strategy Image: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Edward Whiting
Director, Strategy, Wellcome Trust
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Poor mental health affects one in four of us, statistics show. But really, mental health affects us all, either personally or through our family, friends and colleagues. As one of the greatest global challenges, it’s great to see mental health becoming more prominent on the Davos agenda. The test will be whether our words become actions.

The Mental Health Matters plenary session at Davos 2019 opened by revealing the staggering estimated global cost of mental illness - $2.5 trillion. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained why her government is prioritizing mental health and creating the world’s first well-being strategy. The Duke of Cambridge, who champions mental health through the Heads Together campaign, shared his own emotional experiences as an air ambulance pilot and called for more acceptance of mental health in the workplace.

Mental health at work

Business leaders are beginning to recognize the critical role their workplaces play in supporting mental health. There’s huge potential to offer better help, given that problems often first manifest themselves and are identified at work. There are also big benefits to supporting employees’ mental health - it means fewer days lost to illness and greater productivity, as well as happier, healthier working environments.

HSBC CEO John Flint shared how the bank is equipping managers with mental health skills and knowledge, enabling them to spot warning signs and direct people to resources. Crucially, Flint views this a critical enabler of the business, not a separate add-on. This is a strong belief at the Wellcome Trust too, which has embedded mental health ambassadors and mental health first aid training in the workplace.

Have you read?

At Davos, I heard lots of great examples of new projects and alliances, such as City Mental Health Alliance and United for Global Mental Health. I was deeply moved by the incredible enthusiasm and willingness to raise the topic of mental health. There was a sense that the issue is truly mainstream now, with great potential for further change.

There was also huge eagerness to increase our understanding of what has a real impact and what doesn’t. This is why Wellcome is supporting the World Health Organization to work with the International Labour Organization and others to develop guidelines on mental health in the workplace, learning from existing research and initiatives to build consensus on what works, and to outline practical steps that workplaces can take.

Finding solutions

Amid the buzz and excitement of Davos, a strikingly simple initiative attracted a remarkable amount of attention. The Friendship Bench - a mental health intervention first developed in Zimbabwe - was visited in the conference centre by everyone from will.i.am to Paul Polman. The bench was created by Dr Dixon Chibanda to meet a mental health gap in Zimbabwe, offering a safe place for people struggling with anxiety and depression to find help.

Leaders visiting the Friendship Bench at Davos really opened up about their own experiences - and Dr Chibanda actually ended up delivering a number of therapy sessions to people who sat on the bench. The project has been running since 2005, and helped more than 40,000 people receive care in 2018. The model has now been replicated in Malawi, Botswana, Zanzibar and even New York.


The Friendship Bench is a great initiative - not just for its simplicity, but because it was designed with the community and has been rigorously evaluated along the way. If we are to improve mental health across the world, we urgently need more treatments like these alongside better prevention, diagnosis and management of mental health conditions. Scientific research is the best way to discover what works. But despite great progress in our knowledge, vast gaps remain.

That’s why Wellcome has announced an extra £200 million for mental health research over the next five years to drive the field forward. Focusing initially on depression and anxiety, it will bring together fragmented communities of researchers and clinicians around the world, uniting them with the common purpose to improve people’s lives.

What next?

From royalty to rock stars, business leaders and politicians, it sometimes seems as if everyone is talking about mental health. This is an excellent trend, and crucial to reducing stigma and misconceptions. But talking is not enough. We need actions to match those words. Too many people are still left without effective treatment when they need it. Together, we can do something about it.

Wellcome wants to work with individuals and organizations to bring about real change, from governments, businesses, schools, activists, researchers and medical professionals to those with lived experience. Working together, we can fight for more investment, better services and more effective interventions to tackle mental health problems. To achieve these goals, we will need to redouble our efforts, listen to each other, speak with a united voice, and encourage others to bring their skills and influence to this movement.

Now the world is talking about mental health more than ever, it is time to act.

What can you do about mental health right now?

- Respect the priorities and experiences of people with mental health conditions, in everything you do around mental health

- Explain to others how better mental health is good for business, the economy and all of society

- Raise mental health up the agenda - feature it in your strategies, success measures, reporting and communications

- Train leaders and employees in how to get support, help each other, access resources and manage problems such as stress

- Update systems and processes, such as those supporting staff returning after illness

- Build networks across all sectors of society to uphold the right to mental health

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