World 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.”
If 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.
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 green pills courtesy Fotolia and Microsoft