Mental health is one of the world’s leading global challenges. While half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, most cases go undetected and untreated. At the same time, the global populace is increasingly concentrated in cities, and these urban centers are also getting younger.  The nerve centers of the state of wellbeing — that is how the World Health Organization describes mental health — are our youth and our cities.

“We can achieve profound social transformation on the issue of mental wellbeing only by involving the entire community and putting young people at the center,” says Moitreyee Sinha, CEO and Co-Founder of citiesRISE, a multi-stakeholder initiative tackling the urgent need to turn the tide on mental health and wellbeing across the world. “We need more collaboration and youth-directed interventions. “

Mental wellbeing is a chronic disease of the young – with over 75 percent of mental illnesses showing by age 24. Every day, half a billion people suffer from depression across the world, with associated economic, social, and educational impacts. Every 40 seconds, someone in the world takes their own life, producing a global tally of more than 800,000 suicides per year.

According to the World Economic Forum, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of disease over the next two decades – more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined. The effects of mental illness account for an estimated $2.5 to $8.5 trillion loss in global output annually. Proven solutions exist, yet most people do not get the help they need.

“Our vision is a world in which cities enable young people to grow up, develop resilience, and lead productive lives through mainstreaming mental health across sectors,” says Sinha.

While the treatment gap in the US is nearly 60 percent, and rises to 90 percent in lower middle-income countries, global annual mental health spending remains under $2 per person. Although much of this burden is preventable, effective interventions for all types of mental illnesses have not been scaled up. The field of global mental health has largely been fragmented and confined to mental health researchers, implementers, and policy makers.

When citiesRISE brought together young leaders in Seattle recently, a lot of the conversation was centered on understanding of power dynamics between larger policy, educational and medical systems and the ways youth might be understood by that system, specially because of cultural differences.

citiesRISE is working to reduce the incidence of critical issues that plague society such as social isolation, unhealthy relationships, mental health stigma and suicide. Currently, citiesRISE is active in five cities: Bogota, Chennai, Nairobi, Sacramento and Seattle. Its vision is a world in which cities enable young people to grow up, develop resilience, and lead productive lives through mainstreaming mental health across sectors.

The platform’s approach to supporting young people’s mental health is threefold.

  • citiesRISE focuses on youth leadership. The platform creates awareness of mental health from an early stage, mobilizing youth to be leaders in the field, addressing large-scale stigma, and preventing mental health challenges before they become chronic or disabling.
  • citiesRISE uses an accelerator to support social entrepreneurs in taking their models to scale with path-to-market strategies, development of business models, and integration with systems operating at scale for long-term sustainability.
  • citiesRISE leverages local collective action, using an innovative and structured approach to cross-sector collaboration that brings local leaders together under a common operating framework, to reach as many people as possible.

The organization has brought together young leaders in Seattle, Nairobi and Chennai — a first for young leaders to collaborate on the way forward to creating healthier communities. It’s the first step toward breaking down silos to improve mental health and well-being of individuals and communities is taking a comprehensive view of its causes and potential solutions.

citiesRISE is focused on driving transformative change by connecting creative and collaborative leaders from across diverse sectors to bring solutions to life while also mobilizing the next generation to lead.

Recently in Chennai, India, when citiesRISE hosted the first ever youth symposium on mental health, the message that came loud and clear from the youth is that they would most likely to seek help from peer-led solutions. In Nairobi, the organization is working with two local anchor partners, the Center for Public Health and Development and BasicNeeds Kenya, and has successfully convened stakeholders to define city-wide priority areas for young people’s mental health. Early emerging themes include the need to address issues such as slum living, urban overcrowding, social connectedness and issues of gender disparity.

The hope is over the next decades the world will begin to see a global reduction in the rates of suicide, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, as well as increases in mental wellbeing, personal and community resilience, and social connection. This calls for greater funding, participation of diverse sectors and inclusion of youth voice.

Funders and key stakeholders can have an impact on this critical global health issue in a number of different ways. Landmark publications such as the Lancet report on Global Mental Health & Sustainable Development and WHO’s Mental Health Action Plan, provide insights into key areas of investment to support the field.  Funders can support directly to mainstreaming mental health through building the capacity of community service providers such as local substance abuse centers, homeless shelters, and initiatives that do not directly address mental health but focus on social determinants such as poverty and inequality.

Looking ahead, the citiesRISE platform will use its youth-driven model to improve mental health outcomes in cities across the globe. The goal is to continue to work with young leaders as part of cross-sectoral and inter-generational collaborations, and have each city learn from each other, rapidly accelerating the growth of mental health care and support over the next decade. Our findings will be shared with the global mental health community and others to advance the sustainable development agenda.

Samuel Talaam, a dynamic young leader who has put mental health on the campus of Nairobi’s largest university, has simple take on this. “We all need to take care of our mental health,” he says. “We just need to change the culture of this topic and make it okay to speak about it.”

Learn more about citiesRISE.