Oct 10, 2023 - Health

World Mental Health Day gets a Harry-and-Meghan boost

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry sit in chairs on a stage while Harry holds a microphone.

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry speak at The Archewell Foundation Parents' Summit during World Mental Health Day 2023. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Project Healthy Minds

Observance of World Mental Health Day has snowballed, with luminaries like Prince Harry and Meghan Markle throwing their weight behind what had been a low-key annual observance.

Why it matters: Mental health has turned into a defining social, medical and workplace issue, especially for young Americans.

Driving the news: A nonprofit called Project Healthy Minds on Tuesday held what it says was the largest festival in the world dedicated to World Mental Health Day, drawing 1,500 people to a flagship event in New York City.

  • Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, shared the stage with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and TV host Carson Daly to discuss the impact of social media on youth mental health.
  • "For us, the priority here is to turn pain into purpose," said Prince Harry, whose organization which he founded with his wife, The Archewell Foundation, hosts a forum for parents of children who have died by suicide.
  • Simultaneous World Mental Health Day events were held in six U.S. cities and London, at the same time that various companies (like MTV Entertainment Studios and JOANN, the arts-and-crafts retailer) announced new relevant initiatives.

Where it stands: For 18 months, Project Healthy Minds has been developing a playbook for CEOs on approaching mental health issues in the workplace — as well as building a searchable online database of mental health resources.

  • It's currently setting up a working group to create corporate standards for supporting employees' mental well-being — such as training managers and peers to recognize symptoms.
  • It's striving to expand its database, which 300,000 people have used to locate mental health services, from about 65 options to 500 or more.

"I've been asked over time whether companies' interest in mental health would wane post-COVID, and the headline is, we've never had more companies asking us how to get involved," Project Healthy Minds founder Phillip Schermer tells Axios.

  • "What that says is that the movement among companies to do more on mental health was not temporal."

The big picture: Mental illness and the lingering stigma around it have emerged as a top concern for parents, educators, health care professionals and even U.S. mayors.

  • Debate over social media's impact on emotional well-being has pitted the most powerful tech companies in the world against lawmakers, regulators, doctors and parents.
  • Pediatricians and others are trying to mediate with TikTok and other social platforms.
  • Young people are driving a rise in mental health spending — and calls for a major societal shift in how mental illness is recognized and treated.

What they're saying: "Therapy is not accessible for the majority of Americans," Zak Williams, a mental health advocate and son of the late actor Robin Williams, told the audience at the NYC Project Healthy Minds event.

  • "Isolation has an effect on mental health the equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day," he said, adding: "Climate change is impacting our mental health, particularly young people."
  • Williams described how he suffered from PTSD and other afflictions after his father's suicide and that of a young cousin.
  • "There's a strong economic argument for investing in prevention," said Williams, one of many boldface-name speakers who called for more action.

Backstory: World Mental Health Day was established by the World Health Organization in 1992 to raise awareness.

  • This year's global theme is "mental health is a universal human right."

Zoom in: The depth of youth mental health struggles was on excruciating display during two successive panels of parents who had lost children to suicide, sponsored by The Archewell Foundation Parents' Summit.

  • Toney and Brandy Roberts described finding their daughter, Englyn, lifeless in her room at 3:30 a.m. after watching a how-to Instagram video on hanging. When the police arrive, "the first thing they ask for is the cellphone," Brandy told the audience.
  • Jennie DeSerio described how her 16-year-old son, Mason, viewed a series of ever-darker TikToks after his girlfriend broke up with him. "A lot of these kids, when they take their lives, their devices are sitting right next to them," she said.

Zoom out: Murthy, the surgeon general, described a "crisis" of youth mental health — an issue that he has turned into a personal and professional mission, issuing an advisory in May about the effects of social media use.

  • On Tuesday, he described his own fears for his children, ages 5 and 7, and said that he and his wife hoped to keep them off social media until they finished middle school.
  • To do so, he said, he was trying to band with other parents who vowed to do the same.
  • The addictive and potentially harmful nature of social media "pits the best designers and product engineers" against families, Murthy said.
  • "We have placed the entire burden of managing that on parents and kids," he said. "That is not a fair fight."

What's next: "We hope this will be the start of a wider conversation about how we can support one another as we navigate the challenges of parenting in a digital age," James Holt, co-executive director of The Archewell Foundation, told the crowd.

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