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

Blessed are those that get invited to summits. On 5 and 6 October 2021, Paris hosted the 3rd edition of 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. In France, where everybody knows  that Human Rights are a French invention, it was therefore no surprise that the theme was “Minds 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 themes were innovative practices for rights in mental health andthe integration of mental health in health during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

So we found ourselves summiting at the vertigo-inducing level of people like the French minister of Solidarity and Health Olivier Véran, his Italian colleague Roberto Speranza (version 4 will be in Rome next year), a Dutch minister (Dutch cabinet posts change faster than names stick these days), UN’s António Guterres and Tedros Ghebreyesus, and for good measure the executive director of UNICEF Henrietta H. Fore and secretary general of  OCDE 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 on the political agenda. Italy’s Roberto Speranza was perhaps the most authentically moved speaker, when he shared his experience with the pandemic days and the cry-out for psychologic help in Italy last year.

But why were we there? Well, it was the Covid pandemic that caused a year delay – the high-level circus took two years to move from Amsterdam to Paris. And we (the working group mental health of Because 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! And apart from that, her reign extends over 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 got real Harry Potter-like dream-quality: Her Majesty agreed to open our conference on 14-15 June (see the digital report of the conference). At ‘our’ conference, as at the summit in Paris where she was the first key-note speaker, she showed a stubborn republican like me what royalty can do: outrank nobility to defend ‘the people’. Nothing against the high-level speakers, who were all correct and relevant, but Queen Mathilde’s speech was in its authentic empathy and clear advocacy for local ownership of wellbeing indeed giving voice to the people that really matter.

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