Unlocking Global Action on Mental Health

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Written by Patrick J. Kennedy, Husseini Manji, and Garen Staglin

The global burden of mental illness—both in human suffering and economic loss—is catastrophic and rapidly growing. Mental health conditions affect more than one third of the world’s population, and they result in nearly $1 trillion in lost economic productivity. However, while passionate leaders in international organizations are working tirelessly on this issue, enhanced support from the world’s top economies and leaders would greatly strengthen global mental health efforts, providing committed leadership, wide-reaching coordination, and dramatically increased funding that mental health requires.

In the recent past, focused global initiatives spearheaded by the G7 or the G20 have proven effective, unlocking $100 million in funding for Alzheimer’s research and $4 billion to improve stability in the Middle East. Leaders and nations belonging to these groups have the resources and leadership to drive meaningful progress on pressing challenges—and few challenges are as pressing as mental health.

A silent issue of our times, mental health is inexorably linked to economic and social development. World leaders clearly laid out this concept in 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals, which includes the target of promoting mental health and well-being for all. Two years later, we stand at a critical turning point. For the first time in human history, suicide is the leading cause of death in girls ages 15-19; a once unimaginable statistic that has become a tragic reality. In families, communities, and societies, mental illness takes a devastating toll that is only growing worse. In economic terms, the annual cost of mental illness is projected to more than double from $2.5 trillion in 2010 to $6 trillion in 2030. Yet, existing programs are often underfunded or fragmented, stigma continues to restrain individual and collective responses, and there remains an overwhelming need for a well-funded, sustained, and global response.

A serious commitment by global leaders would provide such a response. To be effective, world leaders would need to develop a strategic framework that focused on the two key levers—sustainable funding and stigma reduction—which are the core of the many diverse mental health initiatives that can provide the greatest potential benefits:

First, and above all, sustainable funding is needed to reflect the complex economic burden of mental health conditions, which cause enormous health care costs and drain workers’ and businesses’ productivity. Sustainable funding would help to bolster access to mental health care and at the same time encourage a strong, action-oriented scientific research agenda to accelerate progress on innovative mental health treatments. This package could include a framework for multi-sectoral collaboration and new policy incentives to attract sustained research investment.

Simultaneously, stigma reduction must become a fundamental priority for key stakeholders and society overall. Currently, stigma remains a primary cause of untreated mental illness, and funding, research, and policy advances will only have an effect if individuals are empowered to seek information and care. Therefore, a comprehensive new effort should engage schools, universities, and workplaces to combat stigma across age groups. Three-quarters of mental conditions manifest before age 24—a critical phase when young adults transition into the workforce—making this population a key focus. And in the workforce, a recently released report found that mental disorders are the single largest cost driver for many employers; highlighting the urgency of workplace anti-stigma campaigns. Innovative approaches to fighting stigma could also help vulnerable populations, including native communities, refugees, economically disadvantaged individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, and veterans.

Humanitarian, social, and economic imperatives demand action from global leaders on mental health. Individuals and families are suffering. Economic costs are soaring. Lives are being lost.

While existing efforts are important, greater commitment, coordination, and funding are needed. A commitment by world leaders would not only greatly enhance support for those heroes already passionately working to address this crisis—it would also help to create new synergies and prompt urgent international action. Global leaders should unite around a new strategic framework to generate sustainable funding, fight stigma, and transform mental health worldwide.

About the authors: The Honorable Patrick J. Kennedy is a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the nation’s leading political voice on mental illness, addiction, and other brain diseases. Husseini K. Manji, MD, is Global Head, Neuroscience at Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development. Garen Staglin is Co-Founder and Chairman of One Mind and Co-Founder, President, and Trustee of One Mind Institute.