A New Generation of Advocates for NCD and Mental Health Disorders Prevention

For decades, NCDs have been the leading cause of death globally for women, however the future toll is expected to increase in low- and middle- income countries. In Southeast Asia, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) cause 62% of deaths in the region, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Another NCD being integrated in the strengthening of health systems, is the response to mental health disorders. In the region, mental health disorders are a significant cause of disability and are the largest cause of disability among adolescents and youth.

Risk behaviors for NCDs often include tobacco use, alcohol consumption, poor eating habits, and physical inactivity at a young age. An estimated two-thirds of premature deaths due to NCDs are associated with risk factors that began in adolescence. Empowering youth to advocate for positive change in their communities is key to reducing NCDs and improving mental health outcomes, as young leaders have a unique potential to reach their peers and communities to inspire action.

The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Empowering the Next Generation for NCD Advocacy and Grassroots Engagement (YSEALI-ENGAGE) integrates education, collaborative problem-solving, and mentorship to build a generation of leaders in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to effectively prevent and control NCDs.  The program has equipped a network of young leaders with the tools to address mental health and NCDs in their respective communities, building on relationships with regional and global institutions, experts, and peers.

RTI served as the implementing partner for YSEALI-ENGAGE. Forty-three young leaders from across Southeast Asia were chosen out of over 600 applications for the program. The chosen young leaders attended a five-day training workshop in Bandung, Indonesia from April 29 to May 3, where speakers from around the world shared ideas for innovative solutions to address the burden of NCDs and mental health disorders. The workshop participants were then tasked with turning their project ideas into action plans that could be implemented after the end of the project. RTI facilitators and mentors provided guidance on developing problem statements and identifying steps to take to find solutions to these problems. Since the end of the workshop, YSEALI-ENGAGE participants have been implementing their project plans in their home countries, connecting with their mentors, and keeping in touch with one another about how they are improving NCDs and mental health in their communities.

YSEALI-ENGAGE is increasing women's involvewmnt in global health initiative by providing leadership development training necessary to increase NCD and mental health care. In Southeast Asia, professional women may be hindered by traditionally held gender roles that may confine women's work to stereotypical positions. Introducing powerful women leaders to global professionals can bolster and support the advancement of their healthcare careers.

One YSEALI-ENGAGE leader, Sandra Tabinas, reflected on the difficulty to access available information on mental health services and facilities in the Philippines, which prevents people from seeking professional help. She proposed a project called Mental Health AWHEREness to crowdsource data on the availability of mental health services and facilities and create a publicly accessible, interactive map that serves as a central repository for spatial data on mental health services.

Her website contains not only the crowdsourced map of mental health services, but also a feature called “Mapping Emotions” to provide space for people to connect and anonymously share stories about their mental health struggles.

Another YSEALI-ENGAGE young leader, Dr. Hsu Myat, provides free medical services in Myanmar as part of the Youth Doctors Healthcare Group.

She established the Ziwaka Diabetes Center and registered 35 new patients to the associated community clinic in its first two months. Dr. Myat reflected that patients and their families have become more involved in health education activities, healthy lifestyle modification, and healthy eating habits since the introduction of the diabetes center. She also hosted a workshop entitled “Health for All: Engaging Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health Awareness in Youth Communities” in collaboration with the International Youth Society.

Even as formal support to the project comes to a close, many projects will continue thanks to the dedication of YSEALI-ENGAGE leaders.