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Mental Health and Wellbeing – a Royal Salute to the voices from below

By Willem van de Put
on October 7, 2021

Blessed are those that get invited to High-Level summits, and even more so if they take place in Paris. On 5 and 6 October 2021, the French Minister for Solidarity and Health, Olivier Véran hosted a global mental health summit in the French capital, the 3rd edition already in a series of global mental health summits that aim to put mental health and well-being on the Global Health agenda. After London (2018) and Amsterdam (2019), declarations and commitments were made, with a large focus on emergencies and refugees. As every French citizen knows, Human Rights are a French invention, and it was therefore no surprise that this year’s theme was “Mind Our Rights, Now!”. This summit aimed to strengthen international efforts to support mental health, promote respect for rights in mental health, and foster worldwide innovative experiences. The two (sub)themes were innovative practices for rights in mental health andthe integration of mental health in health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

And so we found ourselves “summiting” at the vertigo-inducing ministerial level of people like Olivier Véran, his Italian colleague Roberto Speranza (version 4 of the summit will be in Rome next year), a Dutch minister (Dutch cabinet posts change faster than names stick these days), and other top officials from international organisations like UN’s António Guterres, Tedros Ghebreyesus and for good measure also the (outgoing) executive director of UNICEF, Henrietta H. Fore and the secretary general of  the OECD, Mathias Cormann. Impressive words were spoken, often in the imperative, and as usual the recommendations reminded us of the ten commandments. But intentions were good, and as ICRC director-general Robert Mardini explained, these acts are necessary to get mental health on the political agenda. Italy’s Roberto Speranza was perhaps the most authentic speaker, when he shared his experience with the pandemic days and the cry-out for psychologic help in Italy last year in a very moving way.

But why were we there, who haven’t even reached the top of this institute so far? Well, the Covid pandemic caused a year of delay – the high-level circus took two full years to move from Amsterdam to Paris. And we – that is, the ‘mental health’ working group of  Be-cause health  –  had already figured out that you have to pass Brussels to get to Paris from Amsterdam, and in Brussels resides Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of Belgium, mental wellbeing advocate for the United Nations sustainable development goals! Moreover, her reign even extends well beyond the French language border. That is why we organized, between the second and third, the second-and-a-half edition in this series of summits – except that we did not want it to be a summit, but rather a ‘bottom-up’ edition were the people that actually do the work and need the services could be heard. Given that in London and Amsterdam there was a lot of talk about migrants/refugees coming from francophone African countries, we tried to make their voices heard. And here is where the second-and-a-half edition turned into some of the dreamier Harry Potter stuff: Her Majesty agreed to open our conference on 14-15 June (see the digital report of the conference). We brought these voices to Paris, where the Queen was the first keynote speaker. And, like in ‘our’ conference, she showed a stubborn republican like me what royalty can do: not just speak way better French than me, but also outrank nobility to defend ‘the people’. Nothing against the high-level speakers, who were all correct and relevant, but Queen Mathilde did, in a very empathic speech with clear advocacy for local ownership of wellbeing, indeed give voice to the people that really matter.

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