The Blog

$16.1 Trillion and Counting - The Price Tag Facing the World for Inaction in Mental Health Treatments Demands Attention

By: Inka Weissbecker, Global Mental Health and Psychosocial Advisor, International Medical Corps

Around 350 million people around the world suffer from depression. Another 60 million people struggle with bipolar disorder and 21 million people live with schizophrenia. And it's getting worse. By 2030 depression alone will become the leading cause of disability globally.

Every major natural disaster, public health emergency and armed conflict in the world carries with it a largely invisible yet often crippling mental health impact. Ebola, the Syrian civil war and the Nepal earthquake - all have left their indelible mark on the mental health of millions. Although the damage is often hard to detect, the economic and human costs of mental illness are enormous. We ignore them at our peril.

A 2011 report by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health show that between 2011 and 2030 mental health conditions will account for the loss of $16.1 trillion in economic growth. The costs of addressing global mental health care needs are small compared to costs and consequences of ignoring them.

Simply put, more must be done to address this silent epidemic.

As a global community we prioritise development projects and pump billions into work to help those who need it most - but current investments in mental health are woefully, and unacceptably, insufficient.

Only 1 percent of the global health workforce currently works in the field of mental health, and it is the poor and vulnerable who are most likely to suffer alone. In low and middle-income countries only $2 per person per year are spent on mental health, compared to $50 in high-income countries.

The desire to address this issue is there, as is the ability to do so. So why is it not happening?

The answer lies in current practice: a largely siloed approach to fix an issue of extreme complexity. Smarter thinking is needed to address the rising mental health needs - an approach that builds or rebuilds health and social systems with mental health rooted in their very foundations. In short, don't ignore the mental health challenge, embrace it. When people access medical services, their mental wellbeing needs to be considered at the earliest stages at a community level, not months later and only in large cities and psychiatric hospitals inaccessible to large parts of populations.

International Medical Corps today works in over 35 countries - training medical staff, helping strengthen health systems and build the tools which will help communities face the unexpected. We see the need for these integrated services in the field every day.

In 2015 our team in Iraq helped a 26 year old woman suffering from depression who had tried to take her own life. Physically disabled, forced to flee her home due to fighting, with few remaining financial resources and facing rising tensions within her family, she had tried to overdose on medication after her brother in law accused her of being a financial burden.

While she was rushed to hospital for medical treatment, one of our psychosocial workers was by her side to provide support. In the days that followed, she was linked to our medical team and a treatment plan put into place which included psychotropic medications, support for her and her family to help them cope with the illness, keep her safe and find solutions for problems at home. All the while a psychosocial worker continued monitoring her symptoms and suicidal thoughts. She started gradually improving, formed stronger positive relationships with her family and new ones - including a new one with her sister in law.

Treating her multiple problems separately would have failed this woman. The combined approach - the correct approach - of addressing social and health issues at the community level possibly saved her life and improved those of her family at the same time. But the most important dimension of this young Iraqi woman's story is that it is one of millions. With an estimated 60 million people now displaced in the world - the most ever recorded - her ranks are growing.

Governments need to step forward, ramp up spending on mental health and make sure the funds are used correctly and efficiently.

This week parliamentarians, technical experts and representatives from over 30 international non-governmental organisations have gathered in London to meet with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health and to discuss the barriers to addressing mental health needs and to debate what governments and donors can do.

If we are to truly aim for development through health, we need stronger investment in effective, integrated and low cost mental health programmes. Mental health is critically important to the overall health, economy and social development of whole communities and societies - not just the individuals experiencing mental illness.

The necessary funding for effective integrated mental health programmes needs to be found, and we face a frustrating wait for nations to fully realise the consequences of not funding them.

Inka Weissbecker has been with International Medical Corps for more than six years. She provides remote and on-site technical oversight and support to International Medical Corps' project countries in the areas of assessment, program design, project implementation, and evaluation of mental health and psychosocial programs in over 20 countries. Her recent assignments have seen her work in West Africa for the Ebola crisis, and Middle East and Europe for the current refugee response.