Leading towards a mentally healthier world by Dr Tim Ojo

Today, the 10th of October, is World Mental Health Day. It is the day we are encouraged to raise awareness of mental health issues and advocate against social stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Considering the state of the world now, it is perhaps more important than it has ever been to highlight the need for ‘courageous leadership’ in addressing the myriad mental health issues that arise as consequences of the health, socio-economic and socio-political aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed the norms of our everyday lives in ways that continue to challenge governments, health systems and communities like nothing before has ever done. There is now increased acknowledgement and concern about the rising tide of mental health problems triggered by isolation, job losses, worsening pre-existing mental illness and fear of catching the virus, to give a few examples.

This concern is one of many significantly ‘wicked’ problems challenging the best efforts of the UK government in common with most others across the world. With winter approaching the NHS is facing the annual winter pressures demand and capacity problems; against a worrying backdrop of increasing COVID-19 related hospitalisation rates, record high elective surgery waiting lists and increased stress among frontline health service staff.

All considered there is very good reason to worry about our collective mental health and there is a compelling case for increased focus on making sure that mental health care provision at all levels is timely, robust and sustainable.

Indeed the principles of ‘parity of esteem” and ‘no health without mental health’ that have been highlighted over the years, need to have demonstrable practical implications in health service design and delivery decisions, as we work our way through the difficult days ahead.

Leadership plays a critical role in the championing of and achieving the objectives of the World Mental Health Day. Therefore it is essential that leaders particularly in the health and social care context remain committed to delivering high quality primary, secondary and tertiary mental health services. Additionally increased focus on addressing the social determinants of mental health and wellbeing is critical to reducing the stigma associated with mental health issues.

There is reason to be optimistic about the steady increased awareness of mental health issues and the discernible reduction in stigmatising attitudes towards some aspects of mental illness, in part due to initiatives like World Mental Health Day.

However much more requires doing to address the chronic funding, access equity, workforce planning, service delivery and care quality challenges in mental health within the NHS. Leading towards a mentally health world requires leaders that are capable, healthy and courageous.

Matt Gavin (HBS 2020) describes the characteristics of ‘courageous leaders’ as authenticity, resilience, emotional intelligence, self-discipline and commitment to purpose. These characteristics play a significant role in ability of leaders to get the alignment and commitment of their followers. So this year as leaders support initiatives that promote good mental health and reduce stigma, perhaps using the ‘courageous leader’ paradigm to inform their efforts would be a good thing. To help this process I have framed 5 questions for them to answer relating to each of the attributes as follows.

  1. How do you demonstrate authenticity in your understanding and leadership of mental health issues?
  2. How far are you willing to drive the mental health agenda in the face of inevitable unforeseen setbacks?
  3. How well do you identify and manage your own mental health and wellbeing and how do you manage social relationships?
  4. How well do you exercise discipline and appropriate restraint in all you do as a leader?
  5. What do you see as the purpose of mental health awareness and promotion of anti-stigma and how committed are you to it?

In conclusion as we celebrate another World Mental Health Day, leaders in the health and social care system within the UK and across the world have another opportunity to ‘step up to the plate’ in the challenging and potentially transformational task of building a mentally healthier world.

A world with improved mental wellbeing, reduced suicide rates, better care and treatment for mental health, as well as mental illness recovery enabling societies.


  1. Gavin, M. (2020), 5 Characteristics of A Courageous Leader. Harvard Business School Online (03 March 2020). https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/courageous-leadership

Dr Tim Ojo

Dr Tim Ojo is a Consultant Psychiatrist, coach, mediator and trainer. He works at the frontline of mental health care and was previously an Executive Medical Director and Director of Quality. He is Senior Founding Fellow of the Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management. He is currently the Associate Registrar for Policy Support at the Royal College of Psychiatry.

Conflicts of Interest

I have read and understood the BMJ policy of declaration of interests and have the following interests to declare. I have been a reviewer for BMJ Leader in the last few months. I also am the Lead coach for FMLM’s coaching network and run Eko Consulting Ltd that and have coached a number of senior leaders in the NHS.

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