13 April 2016

Africa: Investing in Treatment for Depression and Anxiety Leads to Four-Fold Return - UN Report

Photo: Mohamed Sheikh Noor/RFI
Members of a band creating awareness around mental health in Somalia (file photo).

Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, and every one dollar invested in scaling up treatment leads to a return of four dollars in better health and ability to work, according to a new study led by the United Nations health agency.

The study, published today in The Lancet Psychiatry, estimates, for the first time, both the health and economic benefits of investing in treatment of the most common forms of mental illness globally, and provides a strong argument for greater investment in mental health services in countries of all income levels.

"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," said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan in a press release jointly issued with the World Bank Group. "We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live."

Depression and anxiety are increasing

Common mental disorders are increasing worldwide. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 million. Close to 10 per cent of the world's population is affected, and mental disorders account for 30 per cent of the global non-fatal disease burden.

Humanitarian emergencies and ongoing conflict add further to the need for scale-up of treatment options. WHO estimates that, during emergencies, as many as one in five people are affected by depression and anxiety.

Returns on investment in treatment far outweigh the costs

The new study calculated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030.

The estimated costs of scaling up treatment, primarily psychosocial counselling and antidepressant medication, amounted to $147 billion. Yet the returns far outweigh the costs. A five per cent improvement in labour force participation and productivity is valued at $399 billion, and improved health adds another $310 billion in returns.

However, current investment in mental health services is far lower than what is needed. According to WHO's Mental Health Atlas 2014 survey, governments spend on average three per cent of their health budgets on mental health, ranging from less than one per cent in low-income countries to five per cent in high-income countries.

"Despite hundreds of millions of people around the world living with mental disorders, mental health has remained in the shadows," said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim. "This is not just a public health issue - it's a development issue. We need to act now because the lost productivity is something the global economy simply cannot afford."

Finance and development actors meet to consider scale-up

A series of events, being co-hosted by the World Bank and WHO today and tomorrow, as part of the World Bank Group-International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings in Washington DC, is bringing ministers of finance, development agencies, academic experts and practitioners together to discuss how to put mental health at the centre of the health and development agenda globally and in countries.

The event aims to kick-start an increase in investments in mental health: investments by governments, development agencies and civil society. It also includes an Innovations Fair showcasing feasible, affordable and cost-effective ways to improve mental health care around the world.

Scaling up mental health services will contribute to reducing by one third premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases by 2030, one of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), endorsed at the UN General Assembly in 2015.

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