Mental health now firmly on ASEAN agenda 


Global and Cultural Mental Health Unit is supporting a new regional approach to mental health systems in Southeast Asia through its advisory role to an influential Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) taskforce.
The GCMHU's Director, Associate Professor Harry Minas, says the work of the ASEAN Mental Health Taskforce will inform high-level decisions by health ministers in ASEAN countries. The Centre is part of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne.
"That mental health is now on the ASEAN agenda is very significant," he says. "I was involved in the workshop that set up the Taskforce. The ASEAN secretariat has nominated two development partners in this process. One is the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the other is the GCMHU."
"As a technical advisor to this Taskforce I'm involved in meetings, work plan development and training of Taskforce members and others from ASEAN countries. This is a really good example of how a regional approach to mental health programs can support the countries with the greatest needs, like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar."
He says taking a regional approach to mental health system development at a government level enables countries to learn from each other. "It will make it easier for mental health practitioners and researchers from ASEAN countries to visit each other, and determine how programs from other countries could translate into their own economic and cultural context. It opens the possibility of fast-tracking development."
Associate Professor Minas believes that when the ASEAN Community is established in 2015 it will function in many respects like the European Union by, for example, enabling health practitioners to work in any ASEAN country without having to gain additional licensing. "This could help to expedite bringing countries that are behind up to a better standard."
That the ASEAN taskforce has invited the GCMHU's input is an indication of how the centre's contribution to mental health development in the region over the past two decades is regarded. The GCMHU's work in ASEAN countries has included collaborating in developing policies, training, funding and political support for the design and implementation of mental health care systems.
For many years, Associate Professor Minas was one of few researchers taking a leadership role in mental health development in low and middle-income countries. He is gratified by how greatly the sector's landscape has been transformed. "There is now an enormous international momentum behind mental health development. The GCMHU now hosts the Secretariat for Global Mental Health and we're planning our third summit, to be held in Bangkok in August 2013."
The increase in attention to mental health in the developing world is reflected in the level of interest among graduates from across disciplines in getting involved in such development work.  "We're very involved in building a much stronger team and we've been able to attract some really smart, talented young people."
Caption: Associate Professor Harry Minas (seated, front right) is a technical advisor to the ASEAN Mental Health Taskforce.