Commonwealth Youth leaders address Ministers on growing mental health burden

01 June 2023
A group photo of Commonwealth youth leaders with Health Ministers at their intergenerational dialogue

Youth leaders from across the Commonwealth have addressed Health Ministers at an intergenerational dialogue on youth mental health held in the margins of the 76th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

The event complemented the 35th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting which was held days before.

Growing need for mental health support

Fahmida Akter, Joab Wako, Christina Williams, Toby Le and Sue In Lee, represented young people in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Canada, and the Pacific. They shared their personal experiences of mental health provision in their home regions during a panel on strengthening mental health services for young people in the Commonwealth on Tuesday.

Each reflected on common experiences such as encountering a rising need for mental health support among people under-30, addressing significant gaps in provision of care following the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring young people are involved in the shaping planning and implementation of policy.

They delivered their observations, thoughts and concerns in front of Dr Hon Yvan Butera, Minister of State, Rwanda, Hon Valasi Luapitofanua Toogamaga Tafito Selesele, Minister of Health, Samoa, Dr Hon Christopher Tufton Minister of Health and Wellness, Jamaica; and Dr. Ahmedul Kabir, Additional Director General, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Bangladesh.

Commonwealth Secretary-General delivering her opening remarks at the mental health intergenerational dialogue
The Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC, delivered opening remarks at the intergenerational dialogue on youth mental health

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland KC, provided opening remarks. The Secretary-General said:

“At its most essential level, we are all here to reflect upon the same central question: What kind of future do we want for the next generation?

“For our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our wider communities. We want a future that is safer, healthier, more equitable, more peaceful.

“A future that ensures everyone is afforded their fundamental human rights, including the right to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health.

“And so, as we focus on addressing the rising burden of mental health conditions in the Commonwealth, particularly among young people, we must address the significant gap we face in the global coverage of care for mental health conditions.”

Significant health burden

Mental health conditions in young people represent a significant public health burden worldwide, with at least 13 percent of people between the ages of 10 and 19 living with a diagnosed mental-health condition, according to World Health Organization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, and further exposed the existing burden of mental health illnesses across the Commonwealth.

A panel of youth leaders at the mental health intergenerational dialogue
The panel of youth leaders - Joab Wako, Christina Williams, Fahmida Akter, Toby Le and Sue In Lee - represented young people across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Canada and the Pacific.

There was an estimated 25 percent rise in both anxiety and depressive disorders among young people during the first year of the pandemic.

With young people accounting for 60 percent of the Commonwealth's population of 2.5 billion, and this year being marked as the Commonwealth Year of Youth, it has never been more important to engage young people as partners in delivering the promise of making quality mental health services in the Commonwealth accessible and affordable.

35th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting

The event was held days after the 35th Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting, also held in Geneva, in the margins of the World Health Assembly.

There, Commonwealth Health Ministers agreed on a ministerial statement containing a commitment to strengthen and integrate mental health care into primary health services and accelerate action to address the increased burden of mental health conditions.

The panel of Commonwealth Health Ministers at the intergenerational dialogue on youth mental health
The panel of Commonwealth Health Ministers from Rwanda, Samoa, Jamaica and Bangladesh at the intergenerational dialogue

Ministers also promised to work together to boost the well-being of populations by promoting sport and physical activity and healthy diets.

The event, co-hosted by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Youth Health Network (CYHN), was supported by the Governments of Bangladesh and Rwanda. Dr Devora Kestel, Director, Mental Health and Substance Use at the World Health Organization also spoke at the event, which was moderated by CYHN Chair Lucy Fagan. Dr Devora said:

“Mental health and psychosocial well-being and development are essential for fulfilling the human potential and the rights of young people everywhere. Nevertheless, every year and in every country the lives of millions of young people are limited by poor mental health…

“Investing in youth mental health means investing in strategies to ensure access to effective, quality, affordable mental health care for all; to tackle stigma, discrimination and abuse within the health system and beyond; and to address underlying social and economic realities that shape young people’s mental health.”

CYHN Chair, Lucy Fagan, said:

“Across the Commonwealth, young people are stepping up to share their stories of lived experience and demand urgent action on mental health. At the heart of this is a call for greater access, equity and dignity so that everyone can get the mental health support they need, where and when they need it.”

Right to good mental health

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda last year, leaders called for a greater focus on the right of everyone to enjoy the highest attainable standard of mental health and wellbeing, noting that childhood and adolescence are particularly critical stages of life for fostering good mental health.

Furthermore, at CHOGM, the Government of Bangladesh and the Government of Rwanda produced the Dhaka-Kigali Mental Health Compact, which acknowledged the need to establish an urgent, coordinated, and sustained response to mental health needs among children and young people.

At the Commonwealth Youth Forum, held during CHOGM in 2023, young leaders also identified mental health as an issue that required urgent attention by member states. Among their recommendations was investing in person-centred mental health services, including young people across all levels of mental health policy development.

Health Ministers pledge to work together to transform care systems and ensure equal access to quality care across the Commonwealth
Read the full CHMM ministerial statement

Media contact

  • Amy Coles  Communications Officer, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat
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