Authors: The Health Policy Partnership and GAMIAN-Europe
It’s difficult to imagine 2020 being remembered for any other health crisis than the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, another crisis is looming within mental health.
The pandemic has, for many, rocked the usual foundations of good mental wellbeing. As our lives have moved into the virtual sphere and time with loved ones as well as many of our favourite activities – travel, arts, sport, socialising – have been scaled back or cancelled altogether, it’s no surprise that the population at risk of mental illness is soaring. The pandemic has brought tragic loss of life, our interpersonal relationships are often in a fragile position and forecasts for the economy are grim. Adding to that are the more general risk factors for mental illness, such as the stress, isolation and uncertainty felt the world over.
Yet accessing mental health services has not become easier. In fact, it has become more challenging. A combination of factors is to blame – reduced capacity in primary care clinics and hospitals, a backlog of demand and, in most places, only ad hoc digital infrastructure in place to compensate. Considerable efforts are needed to ensure every person can access the care and support they require today and in the future.
World Mental Health Day
In response to this challenge, this year the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health spearheaded World Mental Health Day with the theme Move for mental health: let’s invest. This call to significantly scale up funding for mental health must be heeded if we are to see improvements in how we respond to both acute and longer-term mental health needs in our societies.
Along with the obvious compassionate case, there is also a strong economic case to prioritise mental health. In 2012, depression cost around €92 billion across Europe – 30% more than stroke. Depression is a leading cause of low workplace productivity and, most worryingly, 15–20% of people with depression end their life by suicide. By some estimates, preventing 20% of suicides in England alone would save €1 billion.
Even before the pandemic, investments in mental health were insufficient to meet the scale of the burden of mental illness. In 2017, less than 2% of the global median government health budget was spent on mental health, yet mental illnesses account for 7% of the global burden of disease and affect more than 1 billion people worldwide.
More funding is needed now to close this gap, and there are opportunities across health systems and society to make a meaningful difference. We should expect to see a continued digitisation of our health services at large. This will require an initial injection of capital in order to update infrastructure and train healthcare professionals on how to use the new systems and adapt their interactions with patients accordingly. Meanwhile, other initiatives, such as peer-support programmes, may require only modest budgetary increases to deliver improved outcomes. Across all efforts, funding must be provided for monitoring of impact, and evaluation must be performed with specific patient outcome measures in mind, in order to better understand what does and what doesn’t work.
As part of the efforts to build resilient health systems in the wake of COVID-19, mental health must be among the highest priorities. Though mental illness is often less visible than physical conditions, it is no less damaging and costly – and its impact across all aspects of society can be nothing short of staggering. Governments around the world have a unique opportunity to commit to dedicated budgets appropriate to the scale of the challenge and make an immense difference to millions of people the world over.
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This blog is the first in a series in late 2020, as part of the Words to Actions initiative. The initiative began in 2018 with the publication of a report published from nine leading patient organisations in mental health across Europe. The original report and all subsequent Words to Actions materials were initiated and funded by Janssen. For full details, please see: wordstoaction.eu/about
To find out more about Words to Actions, follow us on Twitter: @WTA_initiative