The economic case for investing in mental health

October 26, 2021

By Daniel C. Grafton, Policy Specialist, UNDP Health and Development Team, Istanbul, Katrine Kae Vicedo, Programme Analyst, UNDP Country Office in the Philippines, and Mashida Rashid, Policy Specialist, UNDP Regional Health and Development Team, Bangkok

October is World Mental Health Month. During this second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the occasion is marked amid growing recognition of the huge burden mental health conditions place on our collective wellbeing and on the economies of countries.

A third of the global disease burden and a tenth of all deaths can be attributed to mental health conditions. Yet it rarely shows up among development priorities – and even more rarely outside health sector discussions.

This month, the Philippines was the first ever country to launch a joint UN investment case on mental health, a collaboration between the Philippines Department of Health, UNDP and WHO under the coordination of the UN Interagency Task Force on NCDs (UNIATF).

More than a thousand participants joined the launch event, a clear sign of the growing prominence of mental health in policy discussions in the Philippines. Key sectors of government, UN agencies and civil society called for increased action, citing the main findings of the investment case that investing in evidence-based, cost-effective, WHO-recommended mental health interventions could:

  • save more than 26,000 lives and return 3 million healthy life years to Filipinos over 20 years, and
  • yield returns over 20 years as high as US $15 for every $1 invested now.

The report outlines not only the health but also the economic rationale for investing in evidence-based, WHO-recommended interventions that are in line with community-based, integrated approaches. The case provides robust evidence that increased investments in mental health not only advance the right to health but also make economic sense.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the importance of our mental health into stark relief. As the UN Secretary General, António Guterres said in his address on World Mental Health Day, “there can be no health without mental health”.

In May 2020, the United Nations described the COVID-19 pandemic of having the ‘seeds of a major mental health crisis’. The pandemic has indeed had a major effect on people’s mental health, increasing both the prevalence of mental health conditions and disrupting services for those with mental, neurological and substance (MNS) use conditions. Among 130 countries surveyed by WHO in late 2020, 93% reported disruptions in one or more of their mental health services.

Demand for investment cases for mental health from UN and their partners have seen a sharp uptick as governments realize their value. Mental health investment cases are now underway in seven countries and many others have been requested. For its part, UNDP, together with WHO and key stakeholders, will continue to assist countries develop investment cases for mental health.[1] In its new Strategic Plan for 2022-2025, UNDP has explicitly committed to working with partners to scale health system strengthening, including around equitable access to mental health care services.

But in this context of escalating demand there is a critical shortfall of available technical assistance, as well as a general underinvestment in mental health including through ODA. Estimates of ODA allocated to mental health range between 0.3-1% of ODA for health, of which most has been directed toward emergency and conflict settings. 

To fill this gap, the UNDP, UNICEF and WHO have established the Multi-Partner Trust Fund for NCDs and Mental Health. Governments will be able to receive support to mobilize domestic funding and integrate mental health into their efforts to achieve universal health coverage.

World Mental Health Month is about raising awareness. We as individuals must advocate for equitable access to quality mental health care, fight stigma and discrimination in our communities, and hold our Governments accountable for investing much more in mental health interventions. Mental health is not only a fundamental human right; investing in it also makes eminent good sense for the economy.

[1] And in other areas, including tobacco control, road traffic safety, air pollution, nutrition and neglected tropical diseases.