This is part of Mindstream’s editorial package on Mental Wellbeing surrounding Episode 8 of The Mindstream Podcast.

By Liza Horan, Editor

COVID-19 swept in like a flash flood and hijacked the global news, making health the top story. But physical health wasn’t the whole story, as we learned the hard way: Mental health is just as important for our ability to survive and thrive, and it affects our physical health.

Back then the World Health Organization knew we were on the brink of a global mental health crisis and sounded a clarion call to governments to make a “substantial investment” in mental health services. The median figure worldwide of 2% of government health budget expenditure on mental health was not cutting it, they warned.

That was May 2020.

Now in 2021, with the pandemic a diffused yet present threat, we’re in that full-blown mental health crisis: The fear, worry, and stress of the pandemic lifestyle quadrupled the level of anxiety and depression among U.S. adults, and doubled the symptoms of depression in the U.K., according to a February report in the journal Nature.

The majority of health funds since that time have been diverted for prevention and treatment of the virus, of course. Tiny steps to support mental health have been taken during the crisis. Two examples are the U.K.’s NHS crisis phone line service was launched four years early and handled 3 million calls during lockdown; and American drug store chain CVS has rolled out mental health consultations by licensed therapists in shops with a MinuteClinic so far in five states. While these efforts may feel “too little too late,” they are a move in the right direction.

Much more is needed from governments to make sure “the system” supports its citizens. The economic impact is huge: $2.5 trillion cost of lost productivity worldwide due to mental health issues. But the figures don’t tell the personal stories of toil, struggle and reduced quality of life.

The pandemic put mental wellbeing on the radar for all of us. We learned responsibility of looking out for ourselves and each other in public or at home or work starts with us, but the system needs funding to catch up with demand.

THE FACTS: Mental health matters for everyone

Mental wellbeing is a matter for every human — it’s part of our experience — so it pervades 100% of the population. But when it inhibits our performance in everyday life, especially for a prolonged period, it can be classified as a “problem.” There are both objective measures and subjective measures for what’s considered problematic. There are figures on the prevalence and impact of negative mental health, but they are estimates. We can’t be absolutely sure because the public’s understanding of what lies within a “normal” range of ups and down and what is a problem, illness or disorder; and many people do not seek help or treatment.

PREVALENCE
Even before the pandemic imposed changes on life as we knew it, one billion people worldwide were experiencing a mental disorder, and mental illness accounted for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, according to the WHO. In the U.S., 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year, and 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year, according to America’s largest grassroots mental health organisation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Unfortunately, many people are not seeking support: A U.S. report in 2017 stated that 18% of adults had a mental illness, yet only 13% seek treatment. In England: As many as 75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment. The demand for governments to invest in support for mental wellbeing is crystal clear.

IMPACT
The impact on individuals, families and communities can be told through stories of lived experience and what that means to their own quality of life. The economic impact has been tallied — and it’s expensive. “Poor mental health” cost the global economy $2.5 trillion a year; loss of productivity from anxiety and depression account for $1 trillion of that, a report in The Lancet says. The U.K.’s GDP in 2015 could have been over £25 billion higher than what it was if not for the economic consequences of mental health problems to both individuals and businesses, according to the Mental Health Foundation quoted a report by Oxford Economics.

FUNDING
The WHO urges governments to vastly increase investment in mental health services from the current median of 2% of health budgets. The pay-back of investment is massive, it says: For every $1 invested in “scaled-up treatment for common mental health illnesses, such as anxiety and depression, there is a $4 return in better health and ability to work.” 

THE GOOD NEWS: Awareness is up, personally and politically

The collective experience of the pandemic has brought progress on education and openness about mental health and wellbeing, hopefully reducing perceived stigma and shame. Even in the modern times of the 20th century, mental health was discussed behind closed doors or hidden. Thankfully through increased clinical research, improved medical practices and public education that’s changed a great deal. Language is an important part of normalizing talk of our mental selves within and with others. See related story, Demystifying the language of our thoughts and feelings, for evidence of a shift from “mental health” to “mental wellbeing” and a glossary of key terms.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance is one step toward cultivating a wellbeing-focused society. It’s a collaboration across governments, businesses, organisations, and individuals and anyone can join free. So far five governments have committed to the great vision of putting wellbeing on par with gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of success. New Zealand, Iceland, Scotland, Finland, and Wales — all female leaders — have put policies and practices in place to achieve this great vision, and Norway has announced its intention to do the same. Learn more by reading, “The governments cultivating a ‘wellbeing economy.'”

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

We don’t know the full impact of the pandemic on mental wellbeing, but a great deal of research has been initiated on its intellectual and emotional impact to populations. The economic impact of poor mental health in 2030 was projected before Covid-19 happened. The forecasts vary greatly: In 2010, the number was $6 trillion, according to Lancet, and one year later, a joint report by Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum estimated the economic impact to be $16.1 trillion. Either way, it’s serious money and represents serious suffering and societal dysfunction.

 

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