Mental health is everyone’s business: Senior WHO official

Women subjected to sexual violence, intimate partner violence likely to be twice at risk of suffering from anxiety, depression, says Dr. Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat

Merve Aydogan  | 24.11.2022 - Update : 28.11.2022
Mental health is everyone’s business: Senior WHO official Photo: Mehmet Kaman - Anadolu Agency


As the World Health Organization's Regional Office for Europe held the second meeting of the Pan-European Mental Health Coalition in the Turkish capital Ankara, the organization's senior official affirmed that "mental health is everybody's business."

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, Dr. Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at the WHO Regional Office for Europe, said the meeting is the first in-person meeting and "the coalition is an innovative vehicle that we are using within the WHO."

"We are not working only with member states. We are working also with partners from academia, with NGOs. We are also bringing in persons with lived experience...But the second new element also is that we have gone outside of the traditional mental health sector actors and we have engaged far broader," she said.

Noting that there are over 150 organizations that have adhered to the coalition, Azzopardi-Muscat said there are new organizations seeking to join it each day.

"Because I think in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, people have recognized the importance of mental health and well-being. We have brought it out of the shadows, and we are managing to bring the attention also now of the highest levels of government. Offices of presidents, offices of prime ministers, actors outside the health sector all realize that mental health matters and mental health is everybody's business," she added.

As the UN designated Nov. 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Azzopardi-Muscat stressed that there are still far too many cases of violence against women.

"We still see far too many cases of violence against women, sometimes also culminating in the loss of life. Women who are subjected to sexual violence and intimate partner violence are likely to be twice at risk of suffering from anxiety and depression," she noted.

'Time to focus' on violence against women

Emphasizing that sexual violence against women is not only "a public health concern," she said it is also "a clinical concern, an economic and social concern that needs to be taken far more seriously."

"Regrettably, during the (COVID-19) pandemic, we have seen that the number of cases associated with intimate partner violence has continued to rise, and that this is obliterating the successes that we have had in recent years in this area. So it's really time to focus," she said.

Dr. Azzopardi-Muscat noted the necessity of making sure that girls and young women are "trained to be aware of the signs and also to be able to protect themselves from the very earliest signs" of such violence.

She further added that healthcare professionals need to be trained, to be alerted to signs as "sometimes the signs and symptoms may be a little masked because again, there's a stigma associated with declaring domestic violence, intimate partner violence."

"As the WHO, we continue to put this high on the agenda by working to promote this issue at the highest levels of leadership...We have a specific focus and lens on sexual violence against women in conflict and emergency situations. We also have training programs for the healthcare professionals that we work with through our country office," she added.

Asked about forecasts of a rapid increase in dementia by 2050, she said "the European region is the most rapidly aging region out of the six WHO regions."

Warning that the number of dementia cases will increase, she said it is indirectly due to the region's "success in prolonging life."

"But prolonging life alone is not enough," she noted.

Listing steps that can be taken to prevent or postpone the onset of dementia, the WHO official said "we know that an increase in physical activity, not smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, these are all factors that can actually prevent and delay dementia. And I think there is a road still to be traveled to make more awareness about the fact that dementia can also be prevented."

She also emphasized that dementia is one of the areas "where there is still a huge clinical unmet need" and "therefore we need to invest to ensure that there's appropriate research and innovation in terms of treatment but also in terms of the management and support that can be given so that at least persons with dementia do not suffer from stigma, from discrimination and can live a comfortable and secure and dignified life as possible."

Mental health of children, adolescents

Dr. Azzopardi-Muscat further stated that there were particular references made regarding concerns over the mental health of children and adolescents.

"A number of countries are unfortunately seeing an increase in the prevalence of anxiety, depression and sometimes suicide in children and adolescents. And I think this is really an urgent area that requires concerted action," she said.

Regarding the older population, she said they are suffering from isolation and loneliness which then leads to depression.

In years to come, she said that "one of the biggest challenges undoubtedly is going to be having a health workforce. We have a shortage of healthcare workers in general, globally and in the European region too."

"A workforce that is aging, a workforce that is sometimes migrating to the richer countries, a workforce that is burnt out also because of the past three years of strain. And when we come down to the mental health workforce and we start looking at the need and the demand and the resources that we have available, there's going to be a huge mismatch," she warned.

She also said that health professionals who are suffering from anxiety, strain and burnout are afraid to speak up and seek help.

"That is the first barrier -- overcoming the stigma and being able to say it's okay not to be okay and to be able to seek help," she affirmed.

She said they are working with countries across the globe as the Mental Health Coalition and that they are "breaking stereotypes, and we are seeing that all countries can learn from each other."

"It's not just only small learning from big or big learning from small, or poor countries learning from the richer and more advanced economies. There are lessons to be learned from everywhere," she added.

She also hailed Türkiye's efforts taken "to support the development of community-based services and make progress in the de-institutionalization."

"From my understanding, we can count on Türkiye as a partner that is truly committed to placing mental health at the top of the agenda and to following up on that by working to ensure that the health services available are really accessible and quality services for those who need them."

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