The United Nations Prioritizes Mental Health on World Mental Health Day

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As I handed out blue and yellow pins today in the lobby of United Nations New York headquarters, with the logo “Mental Health Matters,” people rushing by with stern faces stopped and smiled.

“We need more mental health,” many said.

The behemoth august body of the United Nations is paying attention to that need.  Today, on World Mental Health Day, workplace mental health was front and center. It’s all part of a UN organization-wide campaign.

Support comes from the very top, with the UN Secretary-General António Guterres making mental health a priority. The video message from the Deputy Secretary General (DSG) Amina J. Mohammed on this day was loud and clear about caring:

The message is finally breaking through, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has long maintained, “There is no health without mental health.” And as research increasingly shows, paying attention to employee’s mental health actually pays off – in more efficient and happier employees, taking less sick time.  

The DSG’s video message warms my heart. I remember meeting with her five years ago with then-Ambassador of Palau Dr. Caleb Otto when we partnered on advocacy for the inclusion of mental health and well-being in the agenda for sustainable development that was subsequently adopted in 2015 by all 193 Member States of the UN. It was a historic success for mental health and well-being to be in such an international document for the first time.

The document, the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, is the UN’s blueprint for achieving 17 goals for the good of the people and the planet, with mental health and wellbeing along with eradicating poverty, and achieving peace, gender equality and education for all.

Since then, achieving mental health has now also been equated with physical health in the Universal Health Coverage political declaration adopted by the UN member states just last month.

Today, on this World Mental Health Day, the awareness of the importance of well-being is now so much more well-known in this internationally important body.

The commitment is evident in the UN’s mental health strategy, being implemented by the new Global Lead, Therese Fitzpatrick.  She has already launched a website with valuable information about workplace mental health.  And today, an exciting webinar series was launched, that I was thrilled to be part of.

Therese’s introduction gave an overview of the UN Workplace Mental Health and Well-being Strategic Action Plan 2018-2023, a comprehensive approach to address the needs of UN personnel across the globe in so many different duty stations.

The need is great.  A survey of over 17,000 UN employees revealed 18% of respondents reporting anxiety, 22% reporting depression, 19% reporting PTSD and even higher numbers reporting alcohol overindulgence, numbers higher than the general population.  

The website is full of helpful information, on the flyers we handed out today, addressing topics about “Understanding Mental Health,” “Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace,” and “Recognizing Signs of Poor Mental Health.” See:

In the next webinar, my colleagues and I presented about mental health at work and in life.  Dr. Walter Reichman, an industrial/organizational psychologist for the management consulting firm Orgvitality and a UN NGO representative for the International Association of Applied Psychology (that I also represent) spoke about stress in the workplace and recognizing symptoms of co-workers. 

As a clinical psychologist, I presented techniques to immediately cope with stress, that are simple yet based on solid psychological principles. The tools come from years of providing psychosocial support after disasters worldwide (e.g., China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Ebola in West Africa, and with refugees), teaching at Columbia University Teachers College, and giving advice on radio, TV and in print around the world.

“Thought-stopping” and “reframing” change negative thoughts to positive ones by changing your mindset.  Treat yourself, whether singing out loud even if you can’t carry a tune, going for a walk in nature, or hugging a friend, shifts stress chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline to the “cuddle chemical” oxytocin and the “pleasure chemical” of endorphins.

In the webinar, we didn’t even shy away from the oft-taboo topic of suicide – which after all, was the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day. Psychologist Dr. Leslie Popoff, UN NGO representative of the International Council of Psychologists and current President of the Psychology Coalition of NGOs accredited at the United Nations, transitioned from recognizing signs of distress in co-workers and also more serious symptoms of thoughts about ending one’s life.

Notably, terms matter.  Instead of the term “committing suicide,” better to say, “end one’s life.”  (It’s a message brought home last Friday at a meeting of the Deadline Club, teaching journalists how to report sensitively about suicide.)  

Governments at the UN are getting on board.  The Group of Friends of Mental Health and Well-being – that Ambassador Otto and I founded years ago during the intergovernmental negotiations -- is now headed by Canada, Belgium, Bahrain and Ecuador with members from around the world, from Japan to Belize and Trinidad and Tobago to Ireland and Portugal, Brazil, and Morocco. Today, Maldives, Iran, and Guatemala got interested in joining, when I greeted them with “Happy Mental Health Day,” following Therese’s example.

Two days ago at the International Conference on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Crisis Situations, “Mind the Mind,” held in Amsterdam, October 7-8, 2019, hosted by the Netherlands, countries including Iraq, Jordan and India committed to promoting psychosocial support in emergency situations. Years ago when Ambassador Otto and I were advocating about “psychosocial resilience” (about the people) being included in the Agenda, distinct from infrastructural resilience (about alarm systems and where to place buildings) but it was too soon, and governments were unfamiliar with the term. 

Now, the time has come for those terms, mental health, well-being, and psychosocial support.

It couldn’t come soon enough, as statistics from WHO show alarming rates of anxiety, depression and suicide, especially in young people.

Suicide results from profound hopelessness, desperation, and depression.

On a previous World Mental Health Day celebrated at the United Nations, the topic was “Depression: Let’s Talk.” The same goes for suicide: Let’s talk.

On that panel, I mentioned the 3 S’s: silence, shame, and stigma. These persist and must be eradicated.

The smiling faces of guards, staff and delegates on this World Mental Health Day at the UN proves mental health, well-being and hope is here.


Photo Caption: At “Mental Health Matters” UN lobby exhibit (left to right): Daniel Gbujie; Therese Fitzpatrick, Global Lead UN Mental Health Strategy; psychologist Dr. Judy Kuriansky; Omar Castañeda Solares from the Mission of Guatemala to the UN; psychologist Dr. Leslie Popoff


BIO: Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a noted clinical psychologist at Columbia University Teachers College; NGO representative at the United Nations of the International Association of Applied Psychology and advisor to the UN Member States Group of Friends of Mental Health and Well-being; Trustee of the United African Congress and board member of Voices of African Mothers. She has hosted a U.S.-Africa Business Expo and the First Ladies of Africa Health Summit; co-developed a Girls Empowerment Camp in Lesotho; and provided psychosocial support worldwide, including in Sierra Leone during and after Ebola, chronicled in the book “The Psychosocial Aspects of a Deadly Epidemic: What Ebola Has Taught Us about Holistic Healing.”

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