World Mental Health Day: Affirming Mental Health as a Fundamental Human Right

by Ella

This year’s World Mental Health Day carries a profound message – “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right.” It calls upon the World Health Organization (WHO), Member States, and global partners to redouble their efforts in addressing mental health through a human-rights based approach.


Historically, the focus of human rights discussions has gravitated towards fundamental needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. However, mental health stands as a cornerstone of human well-being, a facet that should not be overshadowed. Recognizing mental health as a universal human right underscores the inextricable link between mental well-being and the overall quality of life.


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as a state of well-being wherein individuals realize their capabilities, effectively manage life’s everyday stresses, maintain productive lives, and contribute to their communities. It transcends the mere absence of mental disorders, representing a positive state of mental and emotional well-being. This definition aligns seamlessly with the broader conception of human rights, which encompasses not only protection from harm but also the freedom to lead a fulfilling life.


In this context, every individual, irrespective of geographical location, occupation, or identity, is entitled to attain the highest attainable level of mental well-being. This entitlement encompasses safeguarding against mental health risks, access to high-quality mental health care that is both readily available and easily accessible, and the freedom to participate actively in their communities.


Crucially, mental health is intertwined with various facets of life, including education, employment, housing, and social engagement. An individual’s mental well-being significantly influences their capacity to exercise other rights, such as the right to education and the right to work. By prioritizing and safeguarding mental health, society equips individuals to engage more effectively in the broader community.

For mental health to be unequivocally recognized as a universal human right, transformative shifts in societal attitudes and government policies are imperative. Comprehensive measures must be implemented to shield populations from mental health risks associated with factors like climate change, humanitarian crises, inequity, and poverty. The imperative lies in fostering awareness and education to destigmatize mental health issues. Discrimination and stigma remain substantial barriers that deter individuals from seeking crucial help and support. Additionally, mental health services and facilities must be accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic status, geographical location, or other contextual factors.

Despite the undeniable significance of mental health for overall health and well-being, statistics reveal that one in seven people within the WHO South-East Asia Region grapple with mental health conditions. Mental, neurological, and substance use disorders, along with self-harm, account for a staggering 23% of all years lived with disability in this region. Anxiety and depressive disorders are the most prevalent conditions, affecting nearly half of those living with mental disorders in the region.

The WHO South-East Asia Regional Office has been working diligently alongside its partners to emphasize the importance of mental health, promoting its value, and protecting the rights associated with it.

Human rights-centered services constitute a pivotal aspect of the Paro Declaration, adopted by the Health Ministers of Member States during the Seventy-fifth Session of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia in September 2022. This declaration underscores the importance of universal access to people-centered mental health care and services. Moreover, the newly launched WHO Mental Health Action Plan for the WHO South-East Asia Region for 2023-2030 integrates a human rights approach and gender equity as overarching principles for the planning and implementation of mental health programs and service delivery.

To bolster the expansion of community-based mental health services aligned with national and international human rights standards, WHO SEARO convened a regional workshop titled “Expanding Community-Based Mental Health Services in the WHO South-East Asia Region: Scaling-up Care for Action,” in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in June 2023.

Numerous Member States have already updated their mental health policies and laws to incorporate elements from international human rights instruments. Others are in the process of doing so. Significant strides have been made in providing access to mental health services by strengthening primary care and community-based mental health services in several countries. WHO remains committed to supporting countries in further enhancing such services.

In 2023, WHO SEARO published an interactive dashboard containing regional and country epidemiological and burden data, enhancing the monitoring of the mental health situation in the region.

Efforts are underway to prioritize and intensify action in operationalizing aspects of human rights and mental health. This includes supporting states in their transition away from psychiatric hospitals, emphasizing community-level mental health treatment and care. Another key initiative is providing individuals with lived experience of mental health conditions, their families, and caregivers a platform to collaborate and share their perspectives with mental health and social care program planners. This collaborative effort aims to draft a charter outlining their rights.

In conclusion, it is irrefutable that mental health constitutes a universal human right. Just as the right to physical health is fundamental to human dignity, the right to mental health is equally indispensable. This recognition underscores the need for a collective commitment to prioritize and safeguard mental health, ensuring that every individual, without exception, has the opportunity to realize their full potential for mental well-being and overall quality of life.


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