Rising mental health problems: the human and economic costs

OECD report shows the true effect of psychological conditions brought on by Covid-19 pandemic

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Officials from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have warned about the mounting mental health problems affecting people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The organisation in Paris called for a “redoubling of efforts” to integrate mental health, work and education policy.

Cases of anxiety and depression have increased significantly across all OECD countries.

In the UK, anxiety levels more than doubled in 2020, increasing in adults to 50 per cent from 21 per cent in 2019.

In many parts of the world, the largely intangible and hidden manifestations of mental health problems make them hard to quantify and difficult for services to allocate resources.

But the group’s detailed breakdown of costs and policies across several countries makes it clear that beyond the personal toll, the cost of unmet mental health needs to the economy is high, at 4.2 per cent of GDP across the OECD countries.

The analysis shows more than a third of these costs are indirect and associated with work absence and productivity.

Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen, deputy secretary general of the OECD, told an online event for the report's launch that its timing was “critically important” given how recent data reveals what experts are calling “a tsunami” of mental health issues.

Before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, an estimated one in two people experienced a mental health condition at some point, with one in five living with illness at any given time.

Mr Knudsen said people with mental health conditions had an annual mortality rate up to four times higher than the general population.

Given the known correlations between financial security, employment status, access to treatment and mental health, populations will continue to struggle long after the physical effects of the coronavirus are contained.

Even before the pandemic, a significant number of claimants for sickness pay suffered from mental health conditions.

The report says nearly 60 per cent of Employment Support Allowance claimants in the UK had a mental or behavioural disorder.

In Sweden, 29 per cent of all sickness compensation was related to a mental health condition.

The OECD’s findings make the correlation between poor mental health and a depressed economy quite clear.

While acknowledging laudable shifts in attitude, particularly over the past decade with a concerted effort to de-stigmatise mental health concerns, Mr Knudsen called for better resourcing to meet the growing “treatment gap”.

The disparity between demand and supply of mental health services is estimated to exceed 50 per cent worldwide.

In OECD countries, more than two thirds of working-age people who wanted mental health care could not obtain it and 20 per cent of those who did complained of poor treatment.

On average, mental health spending in those countries is 7 per cent of health budgets, which Mr Knudsen said had barely changed in the past decade.

Christine Morgan, chief executive of Australia’s National Mental Health Commission, told the panel she wanted her government move from a profit-and-loss approach to mental health spending to a balance sheet method that seeks long-term prevention.

“Mental health and well-being is a right of every individual and I want to see us in a world where we have equity in investment in mental health as well as physical health,’ said Ms Morgan, who is also Australia’s suicide prevention adviser.

In some countries, the initial shock of the pandemic and the build-up of mental health needs led to emergency funding and more accessible treatment options, including digital solutions.

But such measures could be temporary and do not fulfil the overall requirements.

While the end of lockdowns around the world will spark a rise in overall happiness, it would be a costly mistake to think mental health issues will subside.