World Mental Health Day 2023: Mental Health is a Universal Human Right

World Mental Health Day 10 Oct 2023

Recognizing that mental health is vital for our overall health and well-being, this year’s World Mental Health Day 2023 sees a strong rally to enhance awareness, knowledge, and, more importantly, action to make mental health a universal human right. The theme, “Mental Health is a Universal Human Right”, underscores mental health as a basic right to all, regardless of who and where they are. Furthermore, mental health challenges should never be the reason to compromise a person’s rights or involvement in their healthcare decisions. Everyone has the fundamental right to receive protection from mental health risks and access to good quality care, along with the liberty of decision-making and community inclusion. 

Mental Health Affects Global Health

Today, one in eight people globally, including young persons, grapple with mental health conditions (WHO, 2023). Some conservative estimates suggest this figure to be at least 5% of the world’s population, making it a staggering 300 – 400 million people worldwide (Patel, 2014) Good mental health not only impacts our overall well-being but it also profoundly affects global health. Patel ( 2014) points out three principles – the burden of mental health (measured by the number of people and quality of life), equity or fairness, and global knowledge and actions to promote global health – as the central issues. 

Mental health challenges reduce the quality of life, affect lifestyle and physical health, and, in some cases, shorten life expectancy through deaths by suicides. Even so, most people with mental health challenges do not receive appropriate treatment or care, whether due to the lack of access, lack of knowledge, or lack of understanding due to stigma and discrimination. Although countries may track mental health expenditures, the actual cost of mental challenges is not reflected, much less the cost and impact of mental health challenges on other health problems. (Patel, 2014

 Mental Health and Human Rights

“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.”

The United Nations

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), laid down on 10 December 1948, is the first-ever declaration that defines a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations. From basic civil, political, and economic rights to social and cultural rights, these fundamental principles of human rights are widely accepted. They also form the base of obligations for governments to act or refrain from certain actions to promote and protect human rights and freedoms of groups and individuals. 

Regrettably, mental health conditions are still shrouded with discrimination and stigma; it can often lead to human rights violations, including having limited access to appropriate care. For example, without community-based mental health support, individuals may be forced into psychiatric institutions with abusive or degrading treatment. Furthermore, people with mental health conditions may face discrimination and have unequal access to opportunities due to the neglect of law and public policies. They may not even be allowed to make decisions about their well-being.

And this is set to change.

In countries like Australia, mental health legislation has been reformed to align with the UN’s Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care principles. Besides the shift to focus on recovery as a journey, it also seeks to “balance human rights of persons with mental illness and the need to protect such persons, as well as others, from conduct which may be the harmful product of mental illness”. This looks like optimizing choices and opportunities for people with mental illness, respecting the person’s wishes and preferences, including considering less restrictive treatment options. It reflects a paradigm shift toward respecting human rights and involving people in their treatment and recovery journey. (Freckelton, 2019)

Just as the International Human Right Laws have expanded to include specific standards for women, children, persons with disabilities, minorities, and other vulnerable groups, The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launches a new publication with information to assist policymakers and other stakeholders in formulating mental health related legislation

in line with the International Human Rights Standards.

Stigma and Discrimination Surrounding Mental Health

Even as efforts around policymaking and access to treatments ramp up, people with mental health conditions do not seek treatments or fully engage in them; and one factor that holds back help-seeking behaviour is stigma. (Corrigan et al., 2014) Stigma refers to having a negative belief about self or group that results in prejudiced behaviours. Examining it through three major theoretical frameworks – social identity, self-stigma, and structural stigma – highlights the interaction between the self and the world (Min, 2019). 

In the context of mental health, the larger group perceives people with mental health conditions as different. The discrepancy in social identity between how a person is seen by society and the actual attributes possessed by the person leads to stigma. On the other hand, self-stigma occurs when people dehumanize and devalue themselves during internal evaluation, leading to feelings of inferiority and shame. The third framework of structural stigma results from external evaluation in relation to social structures (policies or laws) and interpersonal factors (prejudice and discriminatory behaviours). For example, denying people with mental health conditions access to experiences or opportunities that people without mental health conditions can easily access. (Min, 2019). 

Stigma plays a significant role in motivating or disrupting help-seeking behaviours. As such, strategies have to be formulated with an understanding of stigma in order to counteract its effects. It may include programs for mental health professionals to promote care engagement, enhance mental health literacy and family involvement, and even policy changes to combat structural stigma. (Corrigan et al., 2014)

Supporting Mental Health 

The World Health Organization released the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2030, which guides member states and its partners towards promoting mental health and well-being and achieving universal coverage for mental health services. It sets clear actions for “more effective leadership and governance for mental health, the provision of comprehensive, integrated mental health and social care services in community-based settings, implementation of strategies for promotion and prevention, and strengthened information systems, evidence and research.” 

Community members can look to the human rights-based and recovery-orientated training program, WHO QualityRights initiative, to build capacity. The program aims to improve the quality of care, combat stigma and discrimination, advocate for the human rights of individuals with psychosocial, intellectual, or cognitive disabilities, and support civil society’s development. 

With people spending much time at work, workplaces are areas where mental health can be supported. Besides cultivating a safe and positive work culture, implementing evidence-based mental health programs like  The Working Mind may promote mental health and reduce stigma. The meta-analysis of the program by Dobson et al. (2019) reported generally consistent results with “moderate reductions in stigma, increased self-reported resilience and coping abilities”. Qualitative feedback suggested that participants “found the program helpful and that the skills were being employed”.

Make a Difference Today

Mental well-being is for everyone; living with or without mental health challenges, all humans deserve the fundamental right to mental health. More than its effects on global health, it is also about the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and healthy life. Global initiatives such as World Mental Health Day play a significant role in driving Mental Health as a Universal Right. Local initiatives like The Working Mind that enhance awareness and knowledge can further the cause by reducing stigma and providing support. On the personal level, we can learn to prioritize mental well-being (resources here) and continue to support community mental health programs, for example, volunteering with groups or advocating against discrimination; collectively, we can make mental wellness a reality for everyone.

If you or someone you know has prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness, experience difficulties sleeping, have appetite changes and lose interest in activities they used to enjoy or are having suicidal thoughts, please seek support and assistance from a trained counsellor or therapist. 

Take action and join our free webinar on Research Advances in Mental Health. Discover the latest insights on topics like OCD, Childhood Anxiety, Bullying, and Positive Psychology, in our 2-hour virtual event.

The Mental Health a Global Priority for All – Research Advances in Mental Health runs 18 October 2023, from 3-5pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (UTC+10)/ 12pm Singapore Time (GMT+8). Register here.

Additional Resources:

International Helplines





Mental Health in Crisis

Common Mental Health Problems

Emotional Well-being and Mental Health


World Mental Health Day 2023. (n.d.).

Patel, V. (2014). Why mental health matters to global health. Transcultural

Psychiatry, 51(6), 777–789.

Freckelton, I. (2019). Mental health treatment and human rights. Alternative Law Journal, 44(2), 91–92.×19848903

Min, J. W. (2019). The Influence of Stigma and Views on Mental Health Treatment Effectiveness on service use by Age and Ethnicity: Evidence from the CDC BRFSS 2007, 2009, and 2012. SAGE Open, 9(3), 215824401987627.

Corrigan, P. W., Druss, B. G., & Perlick, D. A. (2014). The impact of mental illness stigma on seeking and participating in mental health care. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(2), 37–70.

Dobson, K. S., Szeto, A. C. H., & Knaak, S. (2019). The Working Mind: A Meta-Analysis of a Workplace Mental Health and Stigma Reduction Program. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 64(1_suppl), 39S-47S.

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