United Nations

"A focus on locating problems and solutions within individuals obscures the need to address the structural factors that make lives unlivable," wrote Dr. Dainius Puras, special rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — After 27 years of slow advance, this was the year World Mental Health Day finally hit the cultural fast lane.

Two separate hashtags were trending on Thursday for the designated day of global attention to mental health. The cause held down spots above trending news and pop ephemera, including a hip-hop artist dropping a new album, the firing of a manager for the Phillies and three Tweets about the latest political scandal.

Alongside the endorsement of celebrities and Internet-famous alike, presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders all tweeted their support for World Mental Health Day.

And they were upstaged by comedy clip starring Prince Harry and Ed Sheeran, who joined together to help raise awareness on Instagram.

Politicians, musicians, the Duke of Sussex, though many have tried, you can't buy that kind of publicity.

Thursday's mainstreaming of mental illness began as a decidedly less trendy event back in 1992, when the World Federation for Mental Health decided to mark Oct. 10 as the global day for mental health. After years in which the annual designation was dedicated to peripheral mental health topics including schizophrenia, aging, children, depression and diversity, this year it took aim at the at the apex challenge of human distress: suicide prevention.

With 800,000 deaths globally, suicide is the leading cause of death of young people between 15-29. While the U.S. is quick to address suicide as a byproduct of mental illness, "many children and young people engage in this kind of behavior as a result of violence, sexual abuse, bullying and cyberbullying," says Dr. Alberto Trimboli, clinical psychologist at the University of Buenos Aires and president of WFMH.

In some ways the global response to mental health looks different from that of the U.S., and in others it's much the same.

Trimboli advocated for "getting people to talk about a subject that tends to be taboo and about which many hold mistaken and prejudiced ideas." A similar argument was raised locally by those who objected to Minnesota's 1st District Congressman Jim Hagedorn's recent public comments at a town hall in Winona that "I don't believe in suicide," as he said to a question about guns. "I think it's terrible. My religious background tells me if you kill yourself, you go to hell. It's a bad thing."

But if the global response to suicide battles the same ideas faced within the U.S., their proposed solutions differ greatly. Whereas in the U.S., suicide prevention is widely approached as a problem of screening to identify individuals with depression and direct them towards treatment, often involving medications, the statement issued on World Mental Health Day by a U.N. expert in clinical psychiatry turned that idea on its head.

"A focus on locating problems and solutions within individuals obscures the need to address the structural factors that make lives unlivable," wrote Dr. Dainius Puras, special rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Council in a statement issued by the Office of the High Commissioner to mark the occasion. "Suicide, which is firstly a public health issue, cannot be resolved through increased prescribing of psychotropic medication worldwide. In the face of staggering suicide rates, scaling up already-existing approaches that target individual brain chemistries risks exacerbating the vicious cycle of stigma and social exclusion that often aggravates loneliness and helplessness. We must pursue new routes to suicide prevention that invest in fortifying healthy, respectful, and trustful relationships and community connectedness."

Where America seeks to find and assist individuals who are struggling, World Mental Health Day voices see problems in society.

"Efforts to identify, monitor, and predict individuals' propensities for violence (including suicide as self-directed violence)," Puras said, "run the risk of further stigmatization and discrimination of those identified ... Research demonstrates that people suffering from emotional pain are at an increased risk of being victims of violence, and they are in need of protection against discrimination and exclusion."

"A human-rights approach to suicide," he added, "goes beyond a focus on mental health concerns and places problems of inequality, homelessness, poverty, and discrimination at the heart of prevention strategies."

For a health problem that's become increasingly global, the critical question of how suicide can be prevented remains far from resolved.

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