WHO Study Says Treating Anxiety and Depression Will Help the Global Economy

Last week, we shared a glimpse into the world of Amber Smith, a 22-year-old from the U.K. who struggles with anxiety, including panic attacks.

Smith caught the attention of the world when she posted a shot of herself done-up and perfectly filtered, then another looking visibly shaken after a panic attack accompanied by a powerful message concerning her personal battle with anxiety.


Smith, of course, is far from alone. Millions of people around the world struggle with some sort of mental health disorder. In Canada, this includes one in five people. Hitting close to home for many of us, a new study from CivicAction revealed that mental health issues affect more than 1.5 million workers in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.

This represents one in two workers.

Globally, the number of people suffering from anxiety or depression has rapidly increased over the past few decades, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from these two common mental disorders, increased by almost 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 million globally.

Investing in treating all these people is obviously no small undertaking, but the WHO points to a recent study that reveals that there are global economic benefits in investing in treatments for depression and anxiety. And that’s beside the point of fostering healthier people.

The study – published last week in The Lancet Psychiatry – found that for every U.S. dollar invested in treating depression and anxiety, there was a $4 return in better health and ability to work. The study calculated estimated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 countries from 2016 to 2030 and is the first to argue for the global economic benefits of investing in treatments for the two mental disorders.

The calculations includes a 5 per cent improvement in worker participation and productivity, which is valued at $399 billion annually. Furthermore, improved health adds another $310 billion in returns, more than doubling the government’s return on investment (about $147 billion).

“We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and well-being; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense, too,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO in a statement. “We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live.”

Investment in mental health care is currently insufficient. The WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2014 survey found that governments spend an average of 3 per cent of their health budgets on mental health. Poorer countries spend less than 1 per cent, while wealthier countries spend 5 per cent. As highlighted by the WHO findings, humanitarian emergencies and world conflict add to the need to scale up treatment options. During emergencies, one in five people could be affected by depression and anxiety.

In Toronto, CivicAction says that mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance use, and bipolar disorder could cost the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas nearly $17 billion in lost productivity over the coming decade.

Not surpassingly, CivicAction calls for more support for workers’ mental health needs. Echoing the WHO report, the organization argues in favour of a business case for addressing mental health concerns.

“We know…that when managers are trained in mental health-related matters, the short-term disability claims drop by 20 per cent,” said CEO Sevaun Palvetzian. He acknowledged that not all employers recognize or understand the merits of addressing mental health concerns.

Interestingly enough, the CivicAction survey found that employees aged 18 to 34 reported the highest rates of workplace stress overall. As a growing number of millennials start to “come out” with their own mental health struggles, it seems impossible to ignore the growing issue any longer.