Regional Director’s Speech for World Health Day 2017

7 April 2017, New Delhi, India

Friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

A very warm welcome to you on this special day.

World Health Day is an opportune time to pursue with vigour our role as public health advocates.

Each year it provides an opportunity to engage with policymakers across sectors, and to highlight the primacy of public health within the development agenda. It also provides an opportunity to engage with the wider public – people from all walks of life – and to talk about pressing public health issues we have all invested in.

For concerned citizens, NGOs and governments, it is a day of immense importance. But as persons working for WHO, today is especially significant: As you know, World Health Day marks the birth of our Organization. I urge you to reflect on how you are advancing WHO’s public health mission.

I likewise urge you to be sincere in your engagement with the theme of this year’s celebration. As you are aware, this year we are focusing on depression, and the need for us as individuals, communities and countries to talk about it more openly.

Understandably, this can be challenging.

For those of us who have it, or think we might at some stage suffer from it, the subject can provoke a range of fears and apprehensions. And for societies in which depression remains taboo, or is poorly understood, discussing it can mean examining deep and enduring social norms.

But depression is an issue that needs to be heard. After all, an estimated 86 million people across our Region suffer the problem. Many do so silently.

To start the conversation, it’s worth examining what exactly depression is.

Depression is a condition of persistent sadness or loss of interest in things a person normally enjoys. It may express itself as disturbed sleep or loss of appetite, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, or feelings of tiredness and lethargy. It may also manifest as agitation or physical restlessness, substance abuse, reduced concentration, and suicidal thoughts or acts.

Importantly, depression is not a weakness. It is a condition that deserves our awareness, understanding and care.

If you think you have depression, there are several things you can do. Talk to someone you trust. Adopt proven coping mechanisms, from exercising regularly to staying connected with loved ones. Seek professional help.

If someone you know and care about is experiencing depression, there are ways you can help.

Let them know you are there for them. Help them with everyday tasks. Encourage them to adopt regular eating and sleeping patterns. Join them for a walk or an exercise session. If they are contemplating self-harm, seek professional medical help and stay by their side – that's when they need your love and support most.

Friends and colleagues,

Though we can each have a positive impact as individuals, health systems and those working in them are integral to the conversation.

Even in low- and middle-income settings there are ways that depression and other mental health services can be made more accessible.

Health care workers can be better trained to detect depression’s signs and symptoms. Community health facilities can be better integrated with national mental health networks. And a greater proportion of health funds can be allocated to this often overlooked though vitally important public health issue.

I am proud to note the support we are giving to our Member States.

Indeed, we have developed depression and grief identification tools to help in early identification, referral and treatment of persons suffering depression.

We have developed the South-East Asia Regional Suicide Prevention Strategy, which is helping health systems prevent and respond to suicide and associated mental health issues across the Region.

And I am pleased to share that we are also working on guidelines for addressing depressive disorders co-occurring with other NCDs and substance use disorders.

This focus and support is driving change.

In the 2016-17 biennium, for example, five Member States – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Indonesia, Maldives and Sri Lanka – identified mental health as a top ten priority health condition. This is an increase from two Member States – Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – doing so in the previous biennium.

Eight Member States have meanwhile developed standalone mental health plans, including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Nepal. These plans will prove vital to ensuring persons suffering depression get the care they need, at the same time as establishing greater awareness on the issue.

The momentum continues.

Just a few weeks ago, India’s Parliament passed the Mental Health Care Bill. The Bill establishes a right to mental health care, and also decriminalizes suicide – an important initiative to counter stigma.

And in his monthly Mann ki Baat address to the nation, India’s Prime Minister raised the issue of depression specifically, urging his countrymen and women to understand and appreciate its impact, and to work through the problem together.

Friends and colleagues,

As I mentioned earlier, amid today’s festivities I urge you to take a moment to reflect on our public health mission, and this year’s theme of depression specifically.

Each of us must be the change we seek in the world; each of us must instill that change in all we do.

I wish you an enjoyable and informative World Health Day, and express my gratitude for your attention and engagement in what must be an ongoing dialogue.

Depression is, after all, as serious as any other chronic or acute condition. It is an issue that touches us all in one way or another, and is one for which each of us can have a positive impact.

Thank you very much.