Not Spending Money on Mental Health Costs the World $1 Trillion a Year

Depression and anxiety are taking a toll on the global economy.

(Photo: Steve West/Getty Images)

Apr 14, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Spending on counseling or medication to treat mental health issues can be an expensive, but new research from the World Health Organization indicates that the global community cannot afford to not treat mental illnesses.

Every dollar invested in mental health treatment sees a $4 return based on better health and ability to work, according to a WHO study published on Tuesday. The first-of-its-kind study estimates the global cost of untreated mental health disorders to be $1 trillion a year.

“We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and wellbeing; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense too,” Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, said in a statement.

The study’s release coincides with the 13th Annual World Health Care Congress, which began on Monday in Washington, D.C. Over the next two days, officials from WHO, the World Bank, and various aid organizations will develop an international agenda to expand mental health programs.

Researchers calculated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 countries of varying wealth from 2016 to 2030. Applying a meta-analysis of past studies regarding depression and anxiety’s impact on workplace productivity and absenteeism, they estimated that a failure to scale up mental health programs would lead to 12 billion days (or 50 million years) of lost work annually over the next 15 years.

Rates of depression and anxiety have increased 50 percent (from 416 million to 615 million people) from 1990 to 2013. That figure will likely increase, given that nearly 20 percent of people involved in emergencies or humanitarian crises, such as the Syrian conflict, experience depression or anxiety.

Yet available treatment remains minimal. Governments spend an average of 3 percent of their health budget on mental health, according to WHO’s figures. That’s left a large number of people in need of services without help, especially in poor nations.

In some low-income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, there are as few as a single mental health worker for a population of 1 million or more. Wealthy nations typically have one mental health worker for every 2,000 people.

To properly address mental health, governments in the 36 counties examined will need to invest $147 billion, primarily on counseling services and medication. WHO’s research found that an uptick in available services will lead to a 5 percent increase in work participation, which will in turn generate $399 billion. Increased mental health programs will also contribute to overall health, with researchers estimating the investment will translate to an additional 43 million years of healthy living, valued at $310 billion.

“This is not just a public health issue—it’s a development issue,” Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, said in a statement. “We need to act now because the lost productivity is something the global economy simply cannot afford.”