Despite stress toll of Covid-19 pandemic, mental health 'not seen as a development issue'

The pandemic exacerbated a global mental health crisis. But taboo, ignorance and a lack of metrics remain barriers to tackling the biggest health burden of the decade, said experts at a conference for social investors.

Silver line of pandemic, brought mental health into greater focus.
"A silver lining of the pandemic is that it brought mental health into greater focus," said Neerja Birla, chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust at the AVPN Global Conference in Bali. Image: AVPN

Mental health has shot up the agenda for governments and businesses in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. But mental wellbeing is still not recognised as a major development issue despite its outsized impact on health, productivity and the economy, experts warned at a conference for social investors.

“We were in a mental health crisis before Covid-19. Since the pandemic, the problem has been exacerbated for millions of people,” said Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the British Asian Trust, a charity that tackles poverty in South Asia.

“How is the world responding to the mental health crisis? It is not doing enough,” he said to an audience of social investors at the AVPN Global Conference in Bali on Thursday.

Some 10 billion working hours are lost to mental illness every year, and yet the problem is “still not seen as a development issue”, said Hawkes.

Mental health cuts across almost all of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and is “a cause and a consequence of poverty”, but the issue receives minimal funding from governments or philanthropic organisations, said Hawkes.

If we don’t do more about mental health, the consequences will be huge.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive officer, British Asian Trust

Only two per cent of global health budgets are spent on mental health, and only 0.5 per cent of philanthropic funding for health projects goes towards solutions for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, he said.

The “bottom line” for governments and businesses is that mental health problems are often preventable, so more resources should be devoted to heading off psychological issues before they become a serious drain on health systems and economies.

Mental blocks

A big part of the problem in tackling mental health problems is that people do not want to open up about internal struggle — so it is hard to identify who needs help, said Neerja Birla, chairperson of Aditya Birla Education Trust (ABET), a Mumbai-based education non-profit.

The social stigma that surrounds mental illness is another hindrance, she said. “A lot of people just don’t want to seek help, because of the deep-rooted taboo [around mental health],” said Birla.

A lack of understanding and clarity around how to measure mental health outcomes has made it hard to secure funding for programmes that address mental illness. “It is difficult to be clear on measurable outcomes, if you are trying to drive attitudinal change,” said Hawkes.

Social investors need to be “brave” in their approach to mental health programmes, and understand that positive outcomes can come from various factors that are hard to measure, he said.

Some of the most sucessful mental health campaigns have resulted from people with influence, for instance the British royal family or cricketers in Pakistan and India, talking about mental health and empowering others to open up about their own experiences, said Hawkes.

“We need social investors to step forward and be creative and innovative, and recognise the longer term cost and consequences of not doing anything — action now is imperative,” he said.

Speaking to Eco-Business on the sidelines of the event, Birla said that a “silver lining” of the pandemic had been a greater focus on mental health, but there was a risk that as the disease outbreak is brought under control, the focus on mental wellness may recede.

Mental illness is projected to be the world’s single biggest health concern by 2030, up from the third largest problem today, according to data from the United Nations. 

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