by Julian Azzopardi

The World Federation for Mental Health have announced the theme for World Mental Health Awareness Day for 2023 as “mental health is a universal human right”. This is an important topic that is both loved and loathed for it’s complexities and devastating affect on individuals and their surroundings.

Talking about mental health is both taboo and essential.

Part of the SDGs (Social Development Goals), it should be a fixed agenda on every government’s meeting table, yet in practice it sounds more like a lot of talk with little walk. The World Health Organisation reports on average, national expenditure on mental health accounts for less than 2% of health care budgets with over 65% of this budget addressing psychiatric treatment. What about the rest?

Never let a good crisis go to waste!

Under normal(!) circumstances, one in eight people in the world live with a mental disorder. Depression and anxiety, being the most common, cost the global economy US$1 trillion every year. A report also suggests that Medicare expenditure of loneliness in the US alone was estimated at US$6.7 billion in 2017.

Unfortunately, during (sic) to the COVID-19 pandemic the world saw a twenty-five percent increase in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. It also saw mental health care services sent reeling during the same period due to the pressures on the need to provide emergency and primary health care. In the US, a study on the impact of the pandemic on loneliness reviewed that participants who felt lonely had a higher incidence of suicidal ideation (34.9%) than those who did not feel lonely (4.5%). (Killgore et al., 2020)

In Malta, a comparative study on loneliness in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that in 2019, 43.5% of the Maltese population surveyed experienced some form of loneliness. During the pandemic – between  April and May 2020 – the percentage rose to 94% of the sample (Azzopardi, Bonnici, Clark, 2021). The highest rates of severe loneliness in the study were among those aged 20-24 years old. Overall, between the ages of 20 and 55, the average increase of those feeling severely or very lonely between 2019 and 2020 was of 41%.

While limiting in the extent of the study, it reveals important data that otherwise would have never really hit the headlines. I wrote about the initial release of the Malta study a year ago which was taken up in Malta CEOs.

Talking about mental health issues are plighted by stigma and fear, while talking about the concept of mental wellness as a human right is tantamount to opening a can of worms.

It is Personal!

Some may or may not know that in 2006 I was on the verge of a depression. I did not know it then. It was only after hearing myself speak in front of audiences about mental performance triggers and blockers, did I realise this. I was self-isolating, self-doubting, I changed mood rapidly and drastically, got both clingy and very detached. I was sad very often, and my bouts of happiness were short, very intense and ended in tears or arguments. I had lost a lot of confidence in my professional abilities, and while I loved my job and colleagues, felt like I had no purpose, direction or connection. I felt like I was alone at it wasn’t the first time.

As a growing kid, I was bullied at school, I was bullied on the football pitch, and I was bullied socially. Not always physically but emotionally, socially and intellectually. My response then was to pay it forward, to those closest to me and more vulnerable than me; my siblings bore the initial brunt, then the younger players in my team, and then those I thought were more socially inept than I was. Thankfully I had a couple of good coaches, a good teacher or two, and a firm family support system, that although tough, was foundational.

In 2006 I had identified my support structure and thanks to their understanding built the courage to say no more. I quit my job and left for a journey of self-discovery. I needed to find my purpose again, re-centre or just take a break.

And it worked.

Today I use these experiences as a reminder to keep me as centred as possible. Of course, I lose focus sometimes and it angers me, but I find strength in my purpose to get out of bed every morning. It’s tough of course as it feels like everyone’s problems are mine to solve. It’s tough not because they are too many and have too little time for them, but rather my mental, emotional and physical strength starts to wane. This makes decision-making tougher. It makes keeping it together tougher. And it makes doing the right thing – repeatedly – tougher too.

Having a strong, varied support structure helps tremendously. I have a doting family, a work environment that is built on helping vulnerabilities transform into strengths, a trusted mentor, a carefrontational peer support group, and close friends who allow me to be me with all my imperfections. Of course I need to do the heavy lifting, but it doesn’t mean I have to do it alone!

So what next?

On the 10th of October 2023, to mark Mental Health Awareness Day, Up Your Level has partnered with WorkingTown and Healthmark Ltd to bring the conversation on mental wellness to centre stage, where it should be.

Hygeia: A Conference on Mental Wellness will address multiple issues related to the universality of mental wellness, the role businesses and business leaders play in stigmatising or facilitating mental health, and how being ‘Malcolm in the middle’ can be debilitating for anyone, not withstanding their role in society. Additionally, three workshops will allow participants to work on their own individual mental wellbeing, prepare a draft workplace policy on mental wellbeing, while participate in an exclusive episode of the Mind over Chatter podcast with hosts Oz and Hogg.

The keynote speaker at the event will be Martin Richards, former UK Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent, hostage negotiator and, crisis management professional who will talk about how emotions and external influences can be mitigated in decision-making.

This is a conference for everyone. A safe space to lean in and beat the stigma of opening up. In collaboration with WeConnect, a fair will run in parallel exhibiting services around the mental wellness space. And as part of the conference, a FREE public discussion on accessibility of mental wellness services will be held at 16:00.

The full conference agenda, list of speakers, tickets to the main conference and public discussion can be obtained here: