Policymakers still need to do more to address the economic and social burden of mental ill-health, the intergovernmental economic and world trade organisation has warned.

Since the start of the pandemic, levels of mental distress have increased sharply in all OECD countries, especially among young people, with the prevalence of anxiety and depression even doubling in some cases.

OECD stats showed that certain countries were particularly affected by increases in anxiety, especially Mexico, the UK, the USA, and South Korea. At the same time, symptoms of depression have been more keenly felt in South Korea, Sweden, Australia, and the USA.

The projected worldwide economic burden of mental ill-health

In its first of its kind attempt to economically quantify the impact of mental health difficulties. The OECD estimates that mental ill-health drives economic costs equal to more than 4.2% of GDP, some of which are the direct cost of treatment; however, concerningly more than a third are related to avoidable unemployment rates and loss in productivity.

Besides the economic costs, an examination of OECD data showed that mental health had been a long-neglected area in all member states. And in some of its 38 members funding for services have declined substantially over the last decade.

Although the report also said that positive momentum had been made by a few countries in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, significantly in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and the UK.

Findings of the report

A key finding of the report was that nearly 20% of people with a mental health condition reported that they were not treated with courtesy and respect during a hospital stay. And only eight countries routinely gathered data about a patient’s experience of their care.

In addition, the report found that the unmet need for mental health care is an enduring concern across all countries, despite efforts to scale up services. On average, 63% of working-aged people who wanted to receive treatment indicated that they have difficulty accessing it for a financial or geographic reason or due to long waiting times.

Also, employment rates of those with mental distress compared to those without were particularly low in the UK (69.9%) and the USA (74.7%). And spending on mental health as a percentage of government health spending was considerably below the OECD average in, for example, Estonia (2.9%), Italy (3.4%), and South Korea (3.6%).

OECD recommended public health strategies – innovative, people-centred, and holistic approach to care

Consequentially to improve standards of care and related national economic performance, the organisation has urged its members to move away from a supply-driven passive care system to a proactive people-centred care system as a priority.

The OECD defined people-centred mental health care as a system that places 'the individual at the centre of their own care, focusing on the individual service user’s capabilities, knowledge and value-setting. People-centredness acknowledges the needs and wishes of the individual and focuses on how people can manage their own health’.

The report highlighted that many countries have already taken steps towards increasing people-centredness in their health systems, notably when it comes to promoting representation, choice, and diversity of care. However, the OECD said it was clear that many countries are currently not using these systems to their full potential.

Another OECD recommendation is that more action needs to be taken by member states to prioritise the holistic integration and reach of mental health into other sectors besides health care, such as in education and employment.

‘A multi-sectoral, integrated approach to mental health means making mental health a priority in sectors beyond the mental health system – good performance in mental health is not only the responsibility mental health specialists, but rather must include a wide range of actors and sectors including teachers and schools, line managers and workplaces, as well as other community actors’, said the OECD.