Mental Health Takes Center Stage at Davos in 2014

Davos WEF Conference CenterWorld leaders and change agents from the business, environmental, health, and other sectors met last week in Davos, Switzerland for the 44th annual World Economic Forum (WEF), but this time, mental health occupied the agenda like never before. Roughly 10 percent of the more than 200 sessions were devoted to topics such as mental illness, dementia, and mindfulness. You heard right. Mindfulness. CEOs of companies with more than $5 billion a year in turnover (the minimum requirement for the funding members of the WEF) were learning about the merits of meditation.

How is it that the oft-overlooked subject of mental health became a priority at this meeting of forerunners and luminaries? Director Tom Insel of the U.S.’s National Institute of Mental Health wrote a blog post in which he reported three reasons:

  • Mental disorders have emerged as the single largest health cost, with global projections increasing to $6 trillion annually by 2030, more than diabetes, cancer, and pulmonary diseases combined. They also greatly increase the risk for other chronic diseases, giving rise to the expression “no health without mental health.”
  • Employers understand that mental illnesses, especially anxiety and mood disorders, are a threat to productivity
  • Recognition that the 21st century will belong to brain-based economies. In other words, “no wealth without mental health.”

Green pills w. dollar signsIf concern over economic prosperity is what drives large-scale mental health care reform and/or delivery, and sustainability, then so be it. I believe its good practice to frame any proposal or need in terms of the return on investment or economic impact, and mental health care is no exception to the rule. Money makes the world go ‘round, so the more we couple our compassion with cost, the greater the chance that the discussion will hold weight.

One in four will suffer from mental health issues at some point in their life, and a number of these issues — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety — can start early, in the teens and 20s. This is quite different to cancer, which is known to increase in occurrence in the later years. Economically, the earlier an illness starts, the greater the impact to productivity if it’s not given its due attention. But as Robert Greenhill wrote in an article on Davos for The Observer, “We need to find ways to create a culture in which nobody fears moral judgment in mentioning that they’re suffering from depression, any more than in describing how they broke an ankle. …Rehumanising health is one of the great opportunities of our time.”

The thing that resonated most for me in Tom Insel’s piece was his comment, “One Davos regular compared mental health in 2014 to AIDS in 1994, when the WEF declared the need for a global focus on an emerging, heavily stigmatized, frequently misunderstood disorder.” Hell, yes.

Of course I’m going to use a pic of Mandela at the WEF, given the chance!

I had this very conversation with über-humanist Jo-Anne Teal back in November. For those readers who are too young to remember the stigma around HIV and AIDS in the 80s and early 90s, the movie Dallas Buyers Club does a good job of bringing it back to life. Uninformed, and sometimes misinformed, people were completely freaked out by HIV and AIDS, and then there was a monumental shift.

Sometimes, it’s pop culture and celebrities who become the face or the force behind a cause. As Jo-Anne pointed out to me, Princess Diana’s work with AIDS charities and Magic Johnson’s admission that he had the disease both proved to have strong effects on shifting societal sentiment in the 90s. While Bono was at Davos (again) this year, his presence and platform weren’t core catalysts behind the building momentum for mental health issues. It came down to numbers. And if that’s the universal language that will kick this movement into high gear, then hand me my abacus, kids. We’re going to count some beans.

Have mental health issues had an impact on your bottom line? From business people to mental health service consumers, I’d love to hear how you’ve interpreted or had the cost presented to you with regards to how mental health hits your wallet, spreadsheet or stock price.


Photo of Davos World Economic Forum Conference Center in Davos: © MadGeographer / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Photo of Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992: © World Economic Forum / / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Photo of green pills courtesy Fotolia and Microsoft



    • Laura Zera says

      There is hope! Seriously, though, I do think there’s a lot of energy behind this movement right now. I definitely feel hopeful.

  1. says

    There is hope. This is good news and as you say, whatever the drivers for change are, let’s get mental health on the radar screen.

    Just today I was introduced to a new blogger who wants to start a business on nutrition and depression. She has a very short survey about where to focus. Maybe you’d be interested in weighing in:

    I’m going to send her over here to this post too.
    Jagoda Perich-Anderson, M.A. recently posted…Can Optimism Help Resolve Dysfunctional Conflict?My Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Hi Jagoda, thank you for introducing me to Kate. She’s now been here (and commented), and I’ve been there (and took the survey). I love our blogging community!

      • says

        I love that I’v been introduced to this blogging community too!

        Thanks for taking the survey. I look forward to spending some more time on your site. I was living in Vancouver. I’m back with my parents temporarily in Ontario so I can focus on starting this business. I love Vancouver and would love to get back there again soon.
        Kate recently posted…Quick Survey: Who Needs Help the Most?My Profile

        • Laura Zera says

          It’s been years since I’ve been in Ontario, but I used to travel to TO for business a bunch. Now I’m down in Seattle, so at least Vancouver is driveable for me. Hope your business launch goes swimmingly so that you can make it back to Vancouver soon!

  2. says

    I’m so happy to hear business leaders are discussing ways to reduce the stigma and help employees with mental illness, even if for economic reasons.

    I’ve lost a job due to mental illness, and know of others who have as well. I’m too young to remember the AIDS stigma in the 80s. I hope the babies born this year will be too young to remember the mental illness stigma when they are in their late 20s.

    • Laura Zera says

      Kate, your last sentence is such a poignant statement. I hope so, too! What a beautiful thing that would be. I’m happy to meet you and look forward to future discussions. Good luck with your newest project. I was looking around your site — are you based in Vancouver (my former home town)?

  3. says

    Thanks for this, Laura, it’s very useful to a sci-fi writer like me. You know, it’s very easy to write Davos off as the corporate elite planning their master dystopia which sci-fi authors have been predicting since forever. It’s important to keep a balance – how can we be approaching a dystopia if corporations are taking mental health issues seriously? This kind of article is invaluable when I’m plotting a novel set 70 years in the future – thank you!
    Chris James recently posted…Book review: The Living Years by Mike RutherfordMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      I know, right? Your fiction may end up being just that! I had to laugh when I stumbled upon the term “Davos man” in doing the reading for this blog post. He’s like “Marlborough man,” except with nicer clothes and multiple passports.

  4. says

    I am always looking out for good news and I consider this post to definitely fall into that category. I don’t have any personal experience with mental health issues but as you say, one way or another it touches us all. And regardless of why the WEF is looking at the issue, how can it not be a good thing. Just like with the issue of climate change, any issue that makes that group become more aware that people and the planet matters I’m all for it. Thank you for sharing this information.
    Kathy Gottberg recently posted…10 Commandments For A SMART & Simple LifeMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Hi Kathy, welcome! Thanks for your comment. I think it’s more productive to take this as good news and work from that space than to downplay it because it’s “more corporate hype” or whatever some might say.

      p.s. I like what you’re doing over on your site! Had a quick look tonight, will go back for more surfing later.

  5. says

    It’s ironic how so much about our day to day routines in this day and age invite mental strife, and yet the importance of caring for one’s mental outlook still gets overlooked far too often. Years ago, my mentor teacher told me how the new teacher next door to her classroom was literally having a mental breakdown, and when the vice principal came to see what was going on, she told the teacher just to “snap out of it.” Not that I know all the details, but it seems the teacher lost her job and did not get any assistance. I certainly have had some down and out times, but am very hesitant to try any “meds” since I watched my mom be medicated out of her skull for years and years. However, I also have great health insurance, so when I have needed to talk to a professional, cost was never an issue at all.
    Jeri recently posted…Literary Criticism: The Color Purple by Alice WalkerMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Yes, I’m a big fan of the Mental Health Parity Act that has come about in the U.S. just in the last few years. Of course, that doesn’t help socialize mental health care with employers, which is a whole other area of need, but at least it sets the foundation for having equal/better insurance coverage. “Snap out of it” has to be one of the worst things a person can say, ever. Thanks for sharing, Jeri.

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