Gulf nations should spend more on treating mental illness amid concerns there are too few psychiatrists and a stigma around the issue, a report has said.
PwC Middle East said in a briefing paper that about 15 per cent of people in the region experienced mental health problems in any year, but only a minority of those in need sought care.
Untreated mental illness costs the region billions of dollars a year in lost productivity, according to estimates from the company.
PwC highlighted that there were “only” 2.85 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the GCC, which compares to eight for every 100,000 in England and 10 for every 100,000 in Scotland, according to figures published by the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists.
“One out of four people will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime. Yet, more than 75 per cent of those who need mental health care do not seek it,” said Lina Shadid, health industries leader for PwC Middle East.
The organisation said that the Covid-19 pandemic was could have “exacerbated the burden of mental illness” in the GCC and worldwide.
It cited figures from the World Health Organisation indicating that even before the onset of the coronavirus, anxiety affected 284 million people worldwide while depression affected 264 million.
PwC said investing in mental care treatment made financial sense, because for every $1 put into “scaled up treatment for depression and anxiety” there was a $4 return in better health and productivity.
Investments in interventions improve workplace productivity and educational outcomes while reducing the costs of crime, cutting mortality and improving quality of life, the organisation said.
“In addition to the devastating impact on sufferers and those around them, poor mental health can have drastic negative economic consequences, both in terms of lost wages due to diminished productivity and increased medical costs,” Ms Shadid said.
The case for investing in mental health had “never been clearer”, she said, with the report estimating that at least 37.5 million productive days were lost each year in the GCC due to untreated mental illness.
“This is equivalent to $3.5 billion,” she said. “It is abundantly clear that if not properly addressed, mental disorders will continue to have an increasing toll across the GCC.”
According to the Global Burden Disease Study, which involves thousands of researchers around the globe, 80 per cent of people in Saudi Arabia with “severe mental disorders” do not seek professional help.
Although 34 per cent of Saudi people meet, at some point in their life, the criteria for having a mental health condition, only 4 per cent of the country’s health budget is allocated to mental health.
PwC proposed a six-pronged strategy to deal with the issue, made up of mental health system governance, information, awareness and destigmatisation, workforce, service delivery and care financing.
The framework has been adapted from the WHO’s Building Blocks of Health Systems, the organisation said.
“Governments are the ultimate guardian of the public’s health, and so they are in a position to take prime responsibility in making sure mental health is promoted and care is accessible to all those who need it,” said Dr Farah Yehia, PwC's manager for Middle East health industries.
“Doing so sets the example for businesses and local communities to follow.”
PwC stated that stigma was “a major barrier” to accessing mental health care in the GCC, often because of misconceptions, a lack of understanding of diagnoses, social and cultural beliefs and “stereotypical” media portrayals.
The company cited a survey in the UAE that found that about 30 per cent of people were reluctant to seek help because they feared their employer would judge them and their career would be harmed.
High costs — a psychotherapy session may cost Dh1,000 — and limited insurance cover for mental health conditions also act as a barrier to people seeking care, according to the organisation.