What better way to spend World Mental Health Day? Understanding policy influence in mental health.

On World Mental Health Day (10 October 2014) Caroline Cassidy and I (pictured right) were fairly excited to present a one day workshop with the GCC project grantees for mental health, on behalf of the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme at ODI .  The topic? Policy Influence in Global Mental Health.  Complex material quite frankly, but as we head towards a tipping point in mental health, a critical area to focus on if we are to achieve change. There were around 100 people in attendance and a fully packed agenda for the day, culminating and closing the Grand Challenges Conference. What a send-off!

We discussed some of the key reasons why policy makers don’t listen to practitioners, about what needs to be done in mental health specifically, and how it should be done.  A panel, made up of voices from the projects, presented on secret recipes for engaging policy makers. Those who had managed to attain policy change shared their tactics. Then we all planned some ways to help achieve policy influence for the group when they return to their projects in the field.


Key take home points                                                        

1. Policy making might look “chaotic” from the outside, but there are rhythms, processes and policy windows (such as electoral cycles, annual budget processes, donor coordination meetings) that can be tapped into. The trick is to uncover these so you can make sure your results are heard by the right people at the right time.

2. The survey results showed that the GCC projects are attempting an extraordinary range of policy influence activities. These included: changing mental health laws, asking to engage CHWs in the project, arranging the procurement and supply of psychotropic drugs, promoting wider changes in existing government health programmes, working with school and university students, changing the way things are taught locally and even trying to shift the mental health agenda to be more inclusive or broader. None of which is easy. 

3. We went through some of the techniques that have worked in other social movements (the HIV, pneumonia, tuberculosis, tobacco and alcohol movements in particular), who overcame stigma, lack of data and low levels of funding to achieve real change. We selected those that might be most relevant to mental health, and how they can be applied.

4. The Panel outlined a list of practical tactics for engaging policy makers. Highlights include remembering to make friends, seizing opportunities “with three hands”, allowing others to take the credit if it means increasing ownership, and finally recognising that it can take a very long time!


5. The GCC project teams will benefit greatly from the toolkits and training that the MHIN knowledge exchange will be planning for coming months and years.  A lot of which is detailed in the upcoming Chapter four of the Report.[1]  These will help the teams to map their stakeholders, develop their messaging (and choose their messenger!), engage the stakeholder(s), package and communicate their findings – including through tools like policy briefs (we even had a full session on how to write these) and multimedia.                                                    

It was a great day, and most of the sessions were captured and will be available here on MHIN, in the coming weeks, as a resource if teams in country want to know what they missed.  The main thing to remember is that there are a range of tools available to assist with policy influence, such as ODI’s ROMA guide and the Alignment, Interest and Influence Matrix.  All of this is detailed in the report that is due out in November 2014. So have a read and start getting involved in policy engagement. We’re here to help.

Jessica Mackenzie is a Research Fellow in the RAPID Programme at ODI. Her work focuses on decision-making in policy formulation, research uptake and how to improve the role of knowledge in policy-making particularly within developing countries.

[1] Mackenzie J., (2014) Global Mental Health from a Policy Perspective: A Context Analysis, Mental Health Innovation Network - forthcoming, November 2014.

Policy and legislation
Empowerment and service user involvement
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