Profound Encounters with Global Leaders in Public Health

By Danielle Pappas

What an honor it has been to attend the 68th World Health Assembly! This past week has been exciting, overwhelming, hectic, and incredible all at the same time! When I think about my life 4 years ago, I would have never even fathomed this amazing opportunity. Four years ago my dream was to help people and change the world, and today I have the pleasure of meeting and listening to those who have and will change the world. The World Health Assembly and the diverse representation it attracts are some of the most passionate, influential, intelligent world leaders and delegates, changing the face of public health and how it is delivered on a global scale.
I feel so thankful to have this opportunity to sit next to and interact with these global leaders. In addition, my public health education and passion propels me into these critical conversations, enabling me to see my dream become a reality as I continue to grow and progress in this field. Although I am still a MPH student with much to learn and experience, I find this week incredibly useful in putting my life in perspective in terms of where I see my passion and work contributing to public health. As I listen to the wise words of those who have invested their lives in this field, and more importantly in the health and well-being of others, and scramble through agenda’s to pick panels and committees to attend, I begin to see more and more the direction my life is taking. This is a critical discovery, as we are all constantly trying to figure out who we are and what drives us, as well as what kind of purpose and impact our lives will have. I owe all my gratitude to my brilliant Professor Heather Wipfli, who works tirelessly to bring select students here every year and thrust them into the heart of public health and global diplomacy.

Here are a couple of experiences I want to highlight so far:

1. I met WHO Director General Margaret Chan (and I didn’t have to stalk her to do this)!

While I was waiting to meet my WHO internship adviser, I saw Margaret Chan interacting with people across the room. I couldn’t believe it (my heart jumped)! What’s even crazier is the moment I noticed her she started walking in my direction. After I passively moved out of her way, I realized I COULD NOT just let her walk by without saying something. So, naturally, I ran to the escalator she was about to get on and told her I couldn’t let her walk by without meeting her. The entire experience was so surreal, and she was just as nice and funny in person as she is in her speeches. This was an unforgettable and amazing moment, especially because of how strong and empowering Margaret Chan is. As a strong, brilliant, independent female leader, she is an invaluable voice for women all over the world. Throughout the assembly, she has constantly emphasized the importance of including women in health programs and decisions and the critical role of female leadership in society.

(MPH student Danielle Pappas with WHO Director-General Margaret Chan)

2. On Tuesday, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet with Dr. Michelle Funk.

Dr. Funk is the coordinator of Mental Health Policy and Service Development, Human Rights and Legislation at the WHO. In this position, she created the WHO framework for providing technical support to countries in the areas of mental health, law, and human rights, with emphasis on how mental health services and policies are delivered. She also specializes in comorbid substance abuse and mental illness, as she works in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
Dr. Funk eloquently discussed the critical issues of marginalization and discrimination of those with mental illness, leading to conflicts in human rights and the desperate need to invoke policy and community level action to ensure those with mental illness receive protected, effective, non-discriminatory treatment. In addition, the mere existence of treatment is not enough, as it needs to be of high quality and align with the rights-based approach to health (participation, non-discrimination, right to health, availability, acceptability, accessibility, quality, transparency, accountability).Dr. Funk also highlighted the problems of mental illness stereotyping and the consequent reluctance of people to self-identify as mentally ill. We discussed how to devise solutions to these issues through tackling discrimination and working to ensure culturally appropriate and sensitive treatment towards the mentally ill. Overall, the crucial need to address mental health issues at a global level demands the fulfillment of non-discriminatory policies and the right to health.I absolutely loved hearing from Dr. Funk because of my personal experiences with mental health/mental health law in my family, research, and volunteer experiences. Because I have a deep passion and commitment to mental health advocacy and improving health through the lens of law and human rights, meeting Dr.Funk and hearing her perspective on mental health was a dream come true!

(WHO Dr. Michelle Funk discusses mental health, law, and human rights with USC MPH students)