Every year 800,000 people globally take their own lives. That's one person every 40 seconds. There are estimates that for every person who dies by committing suicide, there are at least 20 others who may have attempted it. The statistics are harrowing.
Whilst discussions around mental health, wellbeing and suicide are – thankfully – starting to become more prevalent in New Zealand (particularly as we begin the long journey of addressing our own tragic statistics), there is a worldwide suicide epidemic and a global need for better mental health services and support for those struggling. Consequently, there is a much bigger conversation happening, which goes beyond the New Zealand borders, with international organisations putting plans in place to address these issues.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) implemented a comprehensive mental health action plan in 2013, which was adopted by the 66th World Health Assembly. The plan runs through until 2020 and the over-arching purpose is to bring the international attention to what the organisation considers a long-neglected problem and, ultimately, call for change. There are four major objectives of the action plan:
Strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health
Provide comprehensive, integrated and responsive mental health and social care services
Implement strategies for promotion and prevention in mental health
Strengthen information systems, evidence and research for mental health
There are core projects that the WHO is implementing such as the Mental Health Atlas and the STARS project.
The Mental Health Atlas project collects and analyses data on mental health resources around the world. A “Mental Health Profile” is created for every country and this data is updated every three years. This information is made public and creates a platform for assessment, to analyse specific countries’ mental health systems, services and their effectiveness.
The STARS project has been created in direct response to the alarming suicide statistics within the 15-29 age brackets. Depression turns out to be the leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents, with suicide being the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds worldwide. WHO has identified that there are barriers to accessing the treatment, including lack of existing mental health services, transport difficulties and stigma surrounding the problem.
The purpose of the STARS project is to create a digital platform for adolescents experiencing psychological distress, in order to increase their access to mental health treatment. The platform is accessible through smart phones and is currently being trialled in various places throughout the world. So far, there have been positive responses to prototypes that utilise an automated chat agent, designed to give the user a feeling of chatting to another human. The aim of the STARS project is to make the platform available worldwide, providing access to a sort of mental health service for many adolescents, who otherwise may not have any access at all.
From a mental health campaign perspective, there seems to be a common aim amongst numerous projects: ending the stigma that surrounds mental illness. Time to Change is a UK based organisation campaigning to end discrimination, and to improve attitudes and behaviours towards mental health. Their Ask Twice campaign challenges viewers to “check in” with their mates twice if they think something may be amiss – a simple yet effective message.
Similarly, the United States and countries throughout Europe have identified similar problems with stigma. Local organisations within various countries have set up campaigns with very similar messaging to that of STARS. Bring Change to Mind (USA), See Me (Scotland), and One of Us (Denmark) are examples of such.
The great thing about all of this work is that it’s centred around speaking up, sharing stories, and spreading hope, all of which is very important to ending the mental health stigma and helping those in need to feel supported and not alone.
Whilst there is a long way to go, it is encouraging to see that there is a positive change happening across the globe. The most important thing is using the voice that we have to talk about mental illness; to end the stigma that surrounds it. Check in with your loved ones, keep the dialogue open and, if you’re feeling brave enough, share your story. You never know who you might be saving in the process.
References and useful links:
World Health Organisation
Time to Change (UK)