Committee to the UN

ISSTD Marks World Mental Health Day at the United Nations

Thursday, October 10, 2019 was World Mental Health Day. The focus this year was suicide prevention. Around the world people organized to educate and disseminate information about suicide prevention. At the U.N. in New York City the NGO Committee on Mental Health, along with co-sponsors, which included ISSTD, presented an outstanding program of speakers and advocates for suicide prevention, with a range of presentations which represented global efforts to address the incidence of suicide around the world. 

Some key facts were made across many presentations including:  

  • access to firearms greatly increases the likelihood of a successful suicide;
  • in the U.S. suicide rates have been on the increase since 2001;
  • men are more likely to complete suicide;
  • rates of suicide are higher in places of high unemployment, poverty and limited mental health resources;
  • suicide is the leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds; and
  • suicide rates are greatly elevated in refugee camps around the world. One common theme across presenters was the relationship of suicidal ideation to traumatic family separation amongst refugees.

Barbara Stanley PhD, Columbia University, opened the program with a discussion of suicide risk assessment. She presented extensive statistics including the fact that while suicide is decreasing in a number of nations around the world, it has been increasing in the United States since 2000. Other presentations covered suicide prevention programs in the U.S., Southeast India, Peru, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In both the U.S. and India there are programs developing support systems through cell phone apps and texting. Dr. Siva Mathiyazhagan, Founder-Director of the youth-led non-profit Trust for Youth and Child Leadership (TYCL) International, based in India and the U.S. commented that in the small village of his family origin there is no sanitation system, but everyone has a cell phone. He described a program of text-based interventions to reach at-risk individuals. 

Dana Alonzo, PhD, the director of a suicide prevention research program at Fordham University described early life adverse experiences, poverty, poor access to care amongst many other factors increasing suicide in rural Peru. She has been involved in development of community resources, (community capacity building), to address suicidality, in the absence of mental health facilities or professionals.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, PhD, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention presented valuable information about work in the U.S. to prevent suicide. This organization also offers support services to families and friends who have lost someone to suicide, through their Healing Conversations program:

Through the use of Skype we were able to hear a presentation from The Friendship Bench, which “is an evidence-based intervention developed in Zimbabwe to bridge the mental health treatment gap. [Its] mission is to enhance mental well-being and improve quality of life through the use of problem-solving therapy delivered by trained lay health workers”.

Perhaps the most disturbing presentation was made by a representative from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). It was painful for all to see photos of the conditions in refugee camps, and to hear the stories of government decisions to block access to health care and particularly mental health care. For all of us working in the realm of Complex PTSD we know all too well the long-term consequences of these conditions on the children in these camps.

The presentations on community-based programs and use of digital communications did offer some sense of hope. Charlotte Holzapfel, a thirteen year old helped start the campaign @Commit2kind. After witnessing cyberbullying of a friend, she initiated this social media campaign to promote kindness. 

Much of the program presentation can be seen on the Facebook page of the NGO Committee on Mental Health. Please visit the page, like us and access these videos. 

Anyone in ISSTD is welcome to join our efforts at the U.N. In the NYC region we try to sponsor and attend meetings aligned with U.N. activities. Even though there is worldwide suffering from long-term traumatic experience, neither mental health, nor trauma-based awareness is regularly part of the discussion. Our mission is to bring awareness of trauma into all discussions whenever possible and to promote policies that address the long-term consequences of trauma in the world population.