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October 10, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 10:11am

How can cities help close the global mental health gap?

Cities have an inherent creativity, energy, and entrepreneurial capacity that captivate millions of people. Such characteristics are frequently identified as a boon for start-ups and businesses, but their reach goes much farther. Urban ecosystems have great potential as solution hubs for a less-discussed area: mental health.

Globally, a large proportion of people who need mental health care receive little to no support. This trend, known as the mental health gap, is one of the world’s most devastating and under resourced problems, affecting people far beyond the narrow boundaries of health care. It’s an issue in schools, in workplaces, in prisons, in homes. It affects people in their daily lives, on the streets, from the most privileged to the most marginalised.

The mental health gap is especially large in cities, due to mass urbanisation and higher incidence rates of mental illness in metropolitan areas, which place increasing strain on public services. But while cities feel the burden of mental illness acutely, they also have the great potential to achieve meaningful impact in the struggle to close the global mental health gap. The same characteristics that draw artists and entrepreneurs to cities around the world make cities poised to address mental health at scale.

Whether through urban design, education, or other solutions, cities can drive cross-sectoral, efficient, and impactful change by harnessing three things:

  • Cross-sector collaboration: Cities include housing, transportation, law enforcement, education, and health systems that are interconnected and can work together to support cohesive mental health systems.
  • Innovation: In contrast to national governments, city governments tend to be more open to innovation, amenable to faster decision-making, and able to tap into additional resources through local investors and industries.
  • Technology: Connectivity within and between cities through new internet/communication technologies (ICTs) is changing the way we understand treatment and support, as well as how we understand citizen participation and enabling young people to drive change never before imagined.

Meaningful change in cities can also cause a ripple effect that drives shifts in the mental health system at large, benefitting even the most rural communities.

A Bold New Challenge for Cities

Building off momentum from initiatives like 100 Resilient Cities and the Rockefeller Mayors Challenge that have harnessed the capacity of cities for dramatic change, we at the Global Development Incubator have launched mhNOW: a new initiative which will drive a movement among cities and mobilise youth to catalyse local collective action, activating both for better mental health.

Led by a coalition of global and local leaders from public and private sectors including leading mental health experts across the world, mhNOW will support and energise a systemic and holistic approach that integrates various other issues that influence mental health as well.

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Blending local approaches with global expertise, mhNOW will engage cities from Nairobi and Chennai to Seattle and Flint. We’re challenging cities to play a main role in closing the global mental health gap by encouraging cities to invest in resources already at their fingertips: youth action, innovation, and data leadership.

Youth organisations can be inspired and youth movements activated across cities to destigmatise mental health to create an enduring culture of tolerance and understanding, while identifying and incentivising innovation can rapidly scale and replicate the right models in the right places. Finally, in order to unlock investment and drive global progress, mhNOW will support cities and communities to develop databases, needs assessments, scorecards, and other tools they need to mobilise resources and demonstrate cost effectiveness of solutions.

The Opportunity for Urban Leaders

It is undeniable that mental illness is one of the most critical health concerns of our time, in part because it remains deeply stigmatised and unaddressed by the global community. This moment marks a unique opportunity for urban leaders – from mayors to businesses to faith leaders – to step up, learn from global best practices, and drive change on mental health.  Together, we can build a network of urban leaders around the work that sparks a mental health revolution.

 Moitreyee Sinha is the co-lead of mhNOW and the Director of Beyond Health at the Global Development Incubator, an organisation that builds startups, incubates partnerships, and strengthens existing organisations for social impact around the world. Chris Underhill is the co-lead of mhNOW and the founder of BasicNeeds, an organisation working to improve the lives of people living with mental illness and epilepsy. 

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