The Heart of Mental Health and Well-being at the United Nations

New York, N.Y. In the normally staid halls of the U.N., energy exploded as Bolivian musician Hillario Soto entered a large conference room at the back, playing his home-made bass flute, followed Pied-Piper-style by a troupe of musicians, adult vocalists, and youth singers.

Leading the revelry on keyboards was internationally-acclaimed composer and singer/songwriter Russell Daisey performing his original anthem “Happy People, Happy Planet“ that celebrates a joyful connection between people and the environment.

Bass flute player Hillario Soto leading the troupe in the event open.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

As they paraded down the aisle to the front of the room, the performers tossed soft stuffed globes into the air – called Hugg-A-Planets – and into the hands of the energized audience.

Pianist/composer Russell Daisey and his Happy People Happy Planet band.
Photo: Rose Billings.

Youth from the Susan Rybin Studio of Drama that trains young bilingual
Spanish-speaking youth talent. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Though the topic was serious – evident in statistics that 350 million people globally suffer from depression alone – the presentations were all engaging, powerful and heartfelt – duly note the word “heart” in the title “Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Heart of the Sustainable Development Goals.” The Sustainable Development Goals are the 17 goals and 169 targets that the U.N. member state governments adopted last September at the General Assembly.

“The heart is a great enabler… and for the next fifteen years, I want us to think of these sustainable development goals as the affairs of the heart,” entreated U.N. Ambassador of Palau Dr. Caleb Otto, whose good-heartedness underlies his distinguished diplomatic presence. As a public health physician, he embodies the importance of linking mental health to physical health and other SDGs including combating climate change and preserving the oceans—important for his small island state.

Ambassador Otto engineered the campaign in the U.N. government negotiations to support the inclusion of mental health and well-being in the new global agenda. I’m told he good-humoredly ended his statements with, “We wish you continued mental health and wellbeing,” that became a theme echoed by delegates.

U.N. Ambassador of Palau Dr. Caleb Otto. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

His partner in the campaign was my good friend, Dr. Judy Kuriansky, in her role as Chair of the Psychology Coalition of NGOs accredited at the U.N. Their partnership was a beautiful example of what I hear the U.N. talk a lot about, that was put into action, namely government partnering with civil society.

I am well familiar with the boundless energy of my friend Dr. Judy, in her many roles as a professor at Columbia University Teachers College, author, popular radio advice host, fellow Lion, and Global Advisor to the J. Luce Foundation. The tireless humanitarian was going to Jordan the next week to offer psychosocial support to Syrian refugees.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky with Daniela Bas, Director of the Division
for Social Policy and Development in the U.N. Department of
Economic and Social Affairs. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

The triumvirate of sponsors of the event was impressive, with Dr. Otto representing the small developing country of Palau – a beautiful Pacific island – joined by Ambassador Marc-André Blanchard of Canada and Dr. Judy, the main U.N. representative of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP).


(left to right) Ambassador Marc-André Blanchard, Dr. Judy Kuriansky,
and Ambassador Dr. Caleb Otto. Photo: Rose Billings.

“This was such an exciting event at the usually all-too-formal halls of this international house,” said one of the attendees. Ambassador Blanchard agreed when he called out to fellow U.N. Ambassador, Karel von Oosterom of the Netherlands, whose country just got voted into the Security Council, advising that august body to start every session with similar panache.

The jubilance was balanced by sobering statistics about the extent of suffering in the world from poverty, war, displacement and natural disasters. Ambassador Blanchard told us that he had just come back from Uganda where there are 200,000 refugees, fifty percent of whom are under age eighteen. I had no idea Uganda, as a country in Africa, had a refugee problem.

I did know, of course, that Europe has a bulging refugee population. So it made sense that the U.N. Ambassador of Belgium Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve also highlighted their plight, as proof of the urgency of mental health services. He pointed out that his Queen, an appointed U.N. Advocate for the SDGs, prioritizes mental health, which also makes perfect sense as she is a psychologist who practiced as a speech therapist for years. I saw Dr. Judy nod in approval as Ambassador Pecsteen mentioned professional-sounding treatments like “narrative exposure therapy” and “desensitization” to abate PTSD. His competence made even more sense to me when I heard that his wife is a psychologist.

U.N. Ambassador of Belgium Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve.
Photo: Rose Billings.

Thank goodness organizations like the International Medical Corps are helping; psychologist Inka Weissbecker told us about the educational tools they’ve developed for refugees.

So many things impressed me. Many Ambassadors expressed appreciation for the work of Ambassador Otto and Dr. Judy in their campaign among the governments and pledged their support going forward.

This is an issue that “really touches everyone’s hearts,” said U.N. Ambassador to Panama Laura Flores.

A major supporter of the campaign, U.N. Ambassador of Benin Jean-Francis Zinsou, eloquently described how the at-risk and impoverished people of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) that he represented are those who need the most help for mental health and wellbeing, to insure that they are not “left behind” – a popular phrase and objective at the U.N. As a young man, he attended a seminar on how to cope, but others, he said, are not so lucky to learn how to “protect oneself from pressure and tension.”

U.N. Ambassador of Benin Jean-Francis Zinsou speaking with
Robert Firenza listening. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Equally endangered as the LDCs are the small island states that face sinking into the ocean from climate change. Representing a tiny island in the Pacific, like Palau, the U.N. Ambassador of Micronesia Jane Chigiyal said she knows first-hand about mental health needs. A male cousin has a mental health problem. Also, she’s “seen and met more and more men and women around the island with mental health conditions.” Yet, “We are a culture where we do not talk about our problems openly. It is seen as a weakness.” Substance abuse and mental health programs are supported by U.S. federal funding, but resources are low. There’s only one psychiatrist in the country of 100,000 people.

U.N. Ambassador of Micronesia Jane Chigiyal showing where
her country is on the Hugg-A-Planet. Photo: Jimmy Chu.

To my surprise, U.N. Ambassador of Timor-Leste, Maria Helena Lopes de Jesus Pires, turned out to also have real expertise. She was a counselor years ago for torture and trauma survivors. Like a true counselor, she acknowledged the value and inspiration of all the speakers, the great achievement of the inclusion in the SDGs, and advised, “We need to continue this work together.”

U.N. Ambassador of Timor-Leste Maria Helena Lopes de Jesus Pires.
Photo: Rose Billings.

Togetherness was a big theme, emphasized by every speaker. The head of Global Health track for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Emily Dery described the first-ever commitment about mental health being made at CGI in this, its 11th and final year. Known for bringing the private sector to the table of partnerships, CGI is spotlighting the big pharma Johnson & Johnson joining NGOs like Basic Needs doing great work but needing funding.

(left to right) Emily Dery (Clinton Global Initiative), U.N. Ambassador Dr. Caleb Otto,
Dr. Judy Kuriansky and U.N. Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Normally people don’t clap after speeches at the U.N., but I joined the rousing applause when the U.N. Ambassador of Liberia Lewis G. Brown spoke with passion about mental health needs of conflict and post-conflict countries. Liberia had years of civil war and then Ebola.


U.N. Ambassador of Liberia Lewis G. Brown. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

“Passion is what we need,” said U.N. Ambassador to Panama Laura Flores. “More today than economic power, [we have] the power to make a difference… We have to assure the issue of mental health stays on top the agenda.”


U.N. Ambassador Laura Flores and Consul General Alejandro Posse
of Panama with Dr. Judy Kuriansky. Photo: Mangala Weerasekera.

As a former Wall Streeter, I know that you can have all the passion and good will in the world, but money talks. Great programs presented this day about mental health need money. So, who’s paying?

The new Trudeau government, for one. Canada is one of the top funders of mental health, to the tune of 39 million Canadian dollars over the past 5 years, reported Dr. Peter Singer, C.E.O. of the Canadian organization Grand Challenges Canada that doles out government money to worthy projects worldwide. In Pakistan, an avatar screens kids for developmental disabilities. In Zimbabwe, people sit on a “Friendship Bench” to talk about their problems and stamp out stigma – a down-home replacement for the Freudian couch, I thought.


C.E.O. of Grand Challenges Canada Dr. Peter Singer.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Our neighbors to the north were present in full force. Besides the Canadian ambassador and Grand Challenges Canada, the president of the Canadian psychological association, Dr. David Dozois, came to call for equal support for mental as for physical health.


(left to right) Canadians Peter Singer, David J.A. Dozois, Ambassador
Marc Blanchard and Kevin Deer. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

A big highlight for me was the presentation of Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer, faithkeeper and ceremonial ritualist from the Five Nation Iroquois Confederacy in Quebec. Why? I loved his indigenous outfit (I love to wear my Japanese clothes). Yes, I’m rather shy, but I did volunteer to participate in the rituals he demonstrated. In one, he used a feather, deerskin, and sacred water to clear the eyes, nose and throat from grief. Then, for the Sacred Sustenance Dance, I eagerly joined the line of people following him to circle the room as he sang a sacred song using his cherished drum made of skins from the East and West symbolizing the union of all things.


Photo: Mangala Weerasekera.


Photo: Jimmy Chu.

I was also enthralled to hear Haitian Catholic priest Father Wismick Jean-Charles describe projects initiated after the tragic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, since I’ve supported orphanages in Haiti for years. Also, I know Dr. Judy went there with him immediately after the earthquake and years afterwards to train students to help kids feel safe and get over nightmares. I must visit his Center for Spirituality and Mental Health.


Father Wismick Jean-Charles of Haiti. Photo: Mamadou Dabo.


Dr. Judy training volunteers to help children after the Haiti earthquake
(from video shown at the event). Photo: IAAP.

The point of the event was to “walk the walk” not just talk. Psychologist Walter Reichman – a U.N. IAAP representative and vice president at the consulting firm of OrgVitality – told us about seven programs that promote mental health and also help eradicate poverty, consistent with the emerging field of Humanitarian Work Psychology. I loved the training for managers hiring refugees in Minneapolis, the girls’ empowerment camp Dr. Judy co-developed in Lesotho with the First Lady there, and the program rescuing pets after Hurricane Katrina.


The Girls Empowerment Camp in Lesotho (from video) described as one of the
“Means of Implementation” of mental health and well-being. Photo: IAAP.

Given my passion for mentoring youth through the J. Luce Foundation Young Global Leaders program, I was delighted to hear the U.N. focus on youth voices and the presentation of Mekinda Mekinda Jr. on his Power African Youth program that emphasizes positive mindset in mentoring young Africans in business.

One of his mentees, Marie Louise Ocran, founded her “More to Life International” organization that teaches young people in New York and Ghana about anti-bullying, self-esteem boosting, and suicide prevention. We gasped to hear that the beauty Queen (who was third runner up in the 2015 Miss Universe Ghana contest) knows first-hand, having attempted suicide twice when only five and eleven years old. Her goal now is to build a community center.


Mekinda Mekinda Jr. and Marie-Louise Ocran.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Our global leaders who were volunteers this day made me proud. My fellow Lion, Sue Jenner, was equally proud to see the youth from the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the New York Tribeca Campus Lions Club are learning the lesson – about serving – well.


Youth volunteers, speakers and attendees cheerful at the event.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

I learned so much this day, including a new gesture to twirl my hands in the air as sign language for clapping, demonstrated by panelist Daniela Bas. As the Director of Social Development in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Bas pledged to promote mental health and wellbeing in their programming, including the upcoming Commission on Social Development I plan to attend this February. “The wellbeing of elderly persons is often ignored,” she pointed out, and persons with disabilities and indigenous people face stigma that must be ended.


Daniela Bas and Dr. Judy Kuriansky clapping in sign language.
Photo: Mamadou Dabo.

Disabling stigma about mental health is the topic of World Mental Health Day 2016 on October 10, which kicks off a year- long campaign the World Health Organization on depression, and World Mental Health Day on that topic. We got that scoop from the WHO U.N. New York office deputy director Werner Obermeyer.

The room was packed – more so than most U.N. events I’ve been to – and with such a diverse array of people. Many came from far away just for this event – testament to its importance. Psychologist Yuwanna Mivanyi brought a message from Africa and the Nigerian Psychological Association. Timothy To flew in the night before from Hong Kong – and left the next day – to talk about his Post-Crisis Counseling Network program training volunteers to help disaster survivors from Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China. They desperately need more financial support.


Photo: Jimmy Chu.

Coming full circle, the event ended with a reprise of the Happy People Happy Planet performance led by Daisey and his band and more tossing of the globes. Many of us didn’t want to leave the room, filled with such warm-hearted energy, enthusiasm and good will.


Photo: Mangala Weerasekera.

Of course, Ambassador Otto closed the proceedings with his characteristic good humor and tag line, “We wish you continued mental health and wellbeing.”

And I was happy to take a planet home.

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About Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D.: Dr Judy Speaks

View all posts by Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D.: Dr Judy Speaks
Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D.: Dr Judy Speaks
Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D., known as "Dr Judy" for her wise "LovePhones" advice on radio, and on TV, print and internet. Follow Judy Kuriansky, Ph.D. on Twitter:, instagram DrJudyK and at Google her name on amazon for her many books on personal and international relationships.

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