Worldwide Mental Health Investment Would Lead to a Projected $310 Billion Saved

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A woman looks at an impromptu memorial to actor Robin Williams outside the house used in his breakout hit TV show "Mork and Mindy" in Boulder, Colorado, on August 13, 2014. Williams committed suicide after he sought treatment for depression. Rick Wilking/Reuters

Increased spending on improving the mental health of the world’s population could result in a “substantial” return on investment from both economic and well-being standpoints, according to a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank.

The study, published in The Lancet on Tuesday, looked at the predicted costs and outcomes of treatment in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries between 2016 and 2030. Currently, investment in mental health is “far lower than what is needed,” the study argues, with governments spending just 1 to 5 percent of health budgets on mental health.

The estimated number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety jumped by about 50 percent between 1990 and 2013, going from 416 million to 615 million people, or nearly 1 out of every 10 people in the world. In the U.S., nearly 16 million adults suffered from depression in 2014, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. But the problem is particularly prevalent in poorer parts of the globe: Of the world’s population who are likely to experience mental illness, 80 percent come from low- and middle-income countries.

In order to adequately address mental health issues, countries at all income levels need to scale up their spending on treatment for depression and anxiety by $147 billion in the next 15 years, write the study authors; psychosocial counseling and antidepressant medication should be the primary forms of treatment to spend on. Scaled-up treatment of depression and anxiety would lead to “43 million extra years of healthy life over the scale-up period,” the study says, and those additional years are worth $310 billion in projected overall productivity increases.

The estimated economic gains from increased productivity are $230 billion for scaled-up depression treatment and $169 billion for anxiety disorders, according to the study. Essentially, for every $1 invested in depression and anxiety treatment, there’s a $4 return in better health outcomes and ability to work.

In addition to leading to lost productivity and missed work days, depression and anxiety can also contribute to unhealthy behaviors such as poor diet and lack of exercise, according to the study. “These, in turn, are contributing factors to cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, and a range of other costly and potentially conditions,” the study says. “Mental disorders also increase the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse, which can lead to risky sexual behaviors that increase the risk of HIV infections and other injuries. Finally, and most tragically, they are a significant factor in suicides.”

“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,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, said in a statement on Tuesday. “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.”

“Tackling this problem will require ambitious and strategic financing policies, which will need to take into account not only how resources are mobilized and pooled but also how they are channeled, allocated, and implemented,” the study says, suggesting that instead of being viewed as separate entities, mental health coverage should be included in universal health coverage packages.

The paper also recommends wide-scale investment into campaigns that tackle the discrimination those with mental illness often face, which can lead to social isolation and low self-esteem. Awareness campaigns, the study authors write, “can be powerful tools in confronting mental disorders.”