Social justice will do more to improve people’s mental health than medication and therapy, the UN’s chief health envoy has said.
Dr Dainius Pūras, the UN’s special rapporteur on health, spoke out on Monday (June 24) as he delivered a new report on the social determinants of mental health to the UN human rights council in Geneva.
In an interview with the Guardian, Pūras said austerity, inequality, discrimination and other social ills were fuelling a mental health epidemic that’s seen the prevalence of mental health conditions skyrocket by 40 per cent globally in the last 30 years.
“Austerity measures did not contribute positively to good mental health,” he told the Guardian. “People feel insecure, they feel anxious, they do not enjoy good emotional wellbeing because of this insecurity situation.”
“The best way to invest in the mental health of individuals is to create a supportive environment in all settings, family, the workplace. Then of course [therapeutic] services are needed, but they should not be based on an excessive biomedical model.”
Pūras said that governments should invest in and promote better early education, a stronger welfare state and stronger unionisation of workforces to help tack the inequality and social exclusion that he says is driving rising rates of mental ill health.
In his report, Pūras linked trade unions with good mental health.
“History shows that improving conditions in the formal and informal labour market and strengthening the accountability of employers depend on freedom of association or affiliation: the opportunity for meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers,” the report read. “Relationships of solidarity, including through unionization to secure better pay, conditions and dignity at work, are critical to the promotion of mental health.”
The UN envoy did not specifically single out the UK in his criticism of austerity – he is yet to go on a fact-finding mission in Britain to report back to the UN – but his report was emphatic about the role austerity-driven governments have played in exacerbating mental health crises across the globe.
Pūras’ report comes less than a year after a UN poverty envoy last November slammed the UK government and its austerity regime in a damning report
After a Britain-wide fact-finding investigation, UN special rapporteur on poverty Philip Alston said the British government’s austerity policies were “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” and have caused “great misery”.
After Alston’s investigation which spanned two weeks, the rapporteur said he was shocked by the levels of child poverty in the UK. He called it “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster”.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner hailed today’s UN report linking social justice and mental health.
“This report highlights what we have long been saying – mental health is inextricably linked with our environment and our social institutions. It’s no coincidence that rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions have risen in lockstep with austerity and the continued dismantling of the welfare state.
“Isolation and a sense of inequality in an increasingly atomised society is an underlying cause of our mental health crisis and it can only be tackled when people feel they have a stake in their community and in their workplaces,” he added.
“That’s why the government must end austerity, restore our once robust public services with substantial investment, and legislate to strengthen trade unions and collective bargaining. As the UN report highlights, not only trade unions do provide protection against a race to the bottom in pay and conditions but they also bring people together in common cause. Strong relationships forged in the fire of solidarity give people that sense of belonging that is the bedrock of good mental health.”