To be a mental health advocate is to always take suicide prevention seriously and to acknowledge that mental health is a universal human right. A March 2022 scientific brief by the World Health Organization presented a “wake-up call” to the impairment of that right, noting how the global prevalence of anxiety and depression had jumped 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, with young people disproportionately at risk of suicide and self-harm.
In October 2018, announcing the launch of the UN System Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy, UN Secretary General António Guterres professed special insight into mental health since he’s married to a psychoanalyst and is the brother of a psychiatrist.
The United Nations prides itself on underscoring the importance of mental health. The UN’s definition of “health,” adopted by the WHO’s Constitution in 1946 and coming into force in April 1948, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Saying this forcefully, with consistency, is vital. According to my global study with colleagues at the University of Toronto, in the Journal of Affective Disorders and commented on in Nature in 2015, we found just 45-51 percent of respondents from developed countries considered mental illness on a par with physical illness. In contrast, this figure fell to 12-15 percent for those from developing countries.
The International Association for Suicide Prevention, founded in 1960, collaborates with the WHO on a booklet that offers humane guidance to the media on how to report on suicide in a responsible and ethical manner. The UN has shown unwavering purpose in its attempts to integrate mental health into all its international health development efforts.
In this connection, the UN has historically served as the world’s rapporteur of forced suicide and suicide attacks. It is thanks to UN documentation that we know Boko Haram deploys women in suicide bombing operations, conserving its male fighters for combat; it used a 12-year old girl to suicide bomb a market in northeast Nigeria, killing at least 10 people. Similar incidents have been reported in Cameroon and Niger.
In 2003, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned suicide attacks against Israelis, saying such acts serve only to destroy innocent lives. In 2009, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned Palestinian suicide attacks as “despicable and indiscriminate”.
Contrast this with the glorification of suicide attacks by Hamas. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has praised suicide martyrdom as “the price of freedom, liberation, and independence.”
What explains the UN’s relative lack of condemnation of Hamas’ celebration of suicide attacks? Does the UN buy the rationale that promoting Palestinian rights makes suicidal combat operations acceptable?
We would expect António Guterres, the current Secretary-General of the UN, to express consistent outrage toward pro-suicide rhetoric. He has historically presented well on matters of mental health advocacy. In a tweet on October 10, 2019, he wrote: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29, and rising at alarming rates. Mental health has been neglected for too long.” The following October, in an address for World Mental Health Day, Guterres declared: “Around the world, nearly 1 billion people live with a mental disorder. Every 40 seconds, someone dies from suicide.” And again, the next October, on World Mental Health Day in 2021, Guterres said that “millions of people face grief over lost family members and friends, that many are anxious over job security, and that older people may experience isolation and loneliness,” according to an article in UN News.
Though scarcely reported due to overshadowing by Hamas’ terror invasion and systematic sexual violence against Israeli civilians that same week, World Mental Health Day was again observed last year, on October 10th. On that day, Guterres said: “Mental health is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.”
The 2023 theme was: mental health is a universal human right. Now is the opportunity, said the WHO, for people and communities to rally behind the theme, boost knowledge, raise awareness, and accelerate actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health as a universal human right.
The UN has instructed the world community, since its proclamation of a holistic definition of health in 1948, to treat mental health on a par with physical health. But if mental health is a universal human right, are some people being considered more human than others? Why are suicidal attacks not universally condemned? Why is there no UN resolution condemning all suicide attacks in warfare — just as there exist many UN resolutions condemning the use of chemical weapons in warfare?
This UN Secretary-General condemned a suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan. That bombing was abhorrent to him since it occurred at a place of worship, and interfered with the community’s ability to worship in peace and security, which, he said, is “a universal human right.” In June 2017, Guterres condemned an attack by suicide bombers on the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. “All countries must work together in fighting terrorism while upholding the universal rights and values that bind the global community,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric de la Rivière then said on Guterres’ behalf.
Other affronts to universal human rights, says the UN Secretary-General, include deepening hunger and poverty, shrinking civic spaces, the erosion of press freedom and journalist safety, new human rights challenges from the “triple planetary crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. This UN Secretary-General sees human rights violations manifest in rising hate speech, misogyny, exclusion and discrimination, social polarization and the loss of civility, as well as in environmental degradation.
Would that he speak out loudly and clearly against indoctrination that urges children to martyrdom, Jihad, and hate of their neighbor.
Guterres’ words stir people to action—and his lack of words can steer people to blithe indifference.