GROWING BURDEN

Our failure to tackle mental health is costing the world a trillion dollars a year

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The number of people suffering from depression or anxiety worldwide has increased dramatically in the last two decades. The World Health Organization has quantified the economic fallout of failing to deal with this growing epidemic.

The study, published in The Lancet, estimates that almost 10% of the world’s population, or 740 million people, are affected by common mental problems and a collective failure to tackle depression and anxiety costs the global economy $1 trillion each year.

The WHO came to the staggering figure after conducting a systematic review of hundreds of studies—which looked into the impact of depression and anxiety disorders on economic outcomes—across the 36 largest countries in the world. The study found that if health authorities fail to scale up treatment, 12 billion working days (the equivalent to 50 million years of work) will be lost to depression and anxiety every year.

The cost of scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety for all 36 countries amounts to $147 billion over the next 15 years. While this might sound expensive, the WHO argues that the returns on investment far outweigh the costs. The investment would result in a 5% improvement in labor-force participation, which is valued at $399 billion.

The WHO also claims that every $1 invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and the ability to work.

Mental-health disorders currently account for 30% of the global non-fatal disease burden. Despite this prevalence, investment in mental health is failing to meet a growing need. The WHO estimates that governments spend on average 3% of their health budgets on mental health, with low-income countries spending less than 1%.

The study comes as finance ministers, academics, and development organizations meet to discuss mental health and finance at the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

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