World Health Organization director visits MHCC

From Left to Right: Louise Bradley (MHCC), Dévora Kestel (WHO) and Chuck Bruce (MHCC)

On April 11 and 12, Devora Kestel, the recently appointed director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, visited the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC).

“I’m so delighted that Louise [Bradley, MHCC president and CEO] extended this invitation,” enthused Chuck Bruce, who just stepped into his new role as MHCC board chair. “I was able to offer welcoming remarks to Ms. Kestel (at a roundtable attended by a number of key mental health stakeholders) and use them to underscore the message that with mental health we can’t let our nationality trump our humanity.”

Bradley echoed the sentiment. “In some parts of the world, people are living in depravity because of mental illness. This is an unconscionable human rights issue. But I can’t stress strongly enough that every country is a developing country when it comes to mental health. It isn’t a matter of Canada simply imparting its knowledge. We’ve got a lot we can learn from our peers around the globe.”

The mutual education Bradley is talking about is based on reverse innovation, a concept Kestel introduced during her own presentation at the roundtable. Summing up the gist of the term, she said: “Necessity is the mother of invention, so what we see in some under-resourced countries is extraordinary innovation driven by need and achieved with a shoestring budget.”

Bruce, who has been with the MHCC in an advisory capacity since its inception, agreed that there is great value in this type of exchange. “What I’ve been seeing are two sides to the MHCC’s international work: first, that our home-grown solutions are being well received across the globe, and second, that we are gaining a lot through the innovations we borrow from other countries who are steps ahead or are doing things differently.”

Ed Mantler, the MHCC’s vice-president of programs and priorities, points to the pragmatic thinking behind a global mental health movement. “The MHCC has done some excellent work on the mental health of immigrant, refugee, ethnocultural, and racialized populations, and we’re gaining a picture of the challenges unique to this group. With Canada poised to welcome some one million newcomers over the next three years, understanding their needs is tremendously important.”

Taken together, shrinking borders and increased global migration create a strong argument for investing in improved mental health around the world.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Bradley. “Consider just one statistic that Kestel reminded us of: in the global health workforce only one per cent works in mental health, while median government spending on mental health hovers around two per cent. That doesn’t even begin to compute when we consider that the disease burden of mental illness globally — which has increased nearly 25 per cent in the last 25 years — accounts for one out of every ten years of lost health.”

That said, this story isn’t all bad news. As Bradley and Bruce both insist, the progress we’ve made signals greater strides ahead. “We can change this narrative,” said Bradley. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that we need to approach the global mental health crisis with humility. With some Indigenous communities in Canada living in conditions like those in developing countries, we’re hardly perfect. But we can make progress if we first own a problem, then name it and look at it with an eye to finding answers — no matter which part of the world the solution came from.”