Dollars alone can't measure the value of mental health investments

Dollars alone can't measure the value of mental health investments
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COVID-19 is impacting all aspects of our lives. Hospitals are facing overcapacity and limited resources, and businesses and local economies are struggling amid mass closings. Friends and families are coping with rules of physical distancing, and schools are pivoting to e-learning in an effort to accommodate the new normal. This crisis shines a light on the deep inequities we face in our nation, as the most vulnerable feel the greatest impact from these challenges.

In other words, the pandemic has made us keenly aware of risks to our physical health and financial security. Equally important, but perhaps less immediately clear, is its impact on mental health. Although it will take time to measure the full toll of COVID-19 on our well-being, we know that factors like unemployment and social isolation — which we are seeing an increase at rapid rates today — lead to increased rates of anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and other conditions we know as deaths of despair. 

And, even before this crisis, mental health was an acute issue. In the United States, about 11 million adults and 3.2 million adolescents were affected by major depression in 2017; globally, 264 million people around the world have anxiety, and another 322 million experience depression. 

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So, what can be done? 

Responding to COVID-19 should be our country’s top priority. At the same time, we must begin laying the groundwork to flatten the “second curve” — that is, a significant rise in poor mental health, addiction and harm, caused by the economic and social disruptions of the current pandemic.

Just as we are making investments to improve care for communities impacted by COVID-19, we must also invest in better mental health to prevent another health crisis like the one we’re facing today. A timely new report by United for Global Mental Health that will be released on Thursday offers a critical way to think about this investment. “The Return on the Individual,” tells the other half of the story about the benefits of mental health investment — the one that goes beyond dollars and cents — and considers the benefits to you and to me. 

When it comes to making investment decisions, we are conditioned to think about returns in terms of monetary value, and how these investments will prove beneficial in the long term. But by placing the individual at the forefront of the conversation, we can shape a more meaningful and resonant argument for why we need to invest in mental health. This argument goes beyond the financial return and includes the benefits such an investment would have on families, communities, economies — and most importantly, individual lives. 

We are taking a number of actions in this moment to leverage its resources and continue promoting mental health and well-being as our nation builds an inclusive response package to COVID-19. While physical distancing is of the utmost importance to prevent further spread of the disease, increasing social connection through new mediums, connecting with nature at safe distances from others, and emphasizing self-care have become vital to maintaining our mental health. 

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If we don’t invest in mental health now, the impact will also be measurable. Living with a severe mental health condition can reduce life expectancy by 10 to 25 years. It also costs the global economy about $2.5 trillion per year in reduced economic productivity and cost of care. And as our daily lives continue to be disrupted by COVID-19, we can expect these the number of people experiencing mental health concerns arise — as well as the impact. 

The returns on investing in mental health and well-being go well beyond financial gains, and truly can’t be captured in dollars and cents. We need to invest in mental health and well-being today and create the pathways to meaningful human connection and belonging because the returns on the individual will be invaluable.  

Tyler Norris, MDiv, is the chief executive of Well Being Trust, an impact philanthropic organization with a mission to advance the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation. Norris also serves as a board member and/or advisor to Naropa University; the National Academies of Science: Child Well Being Forum; CityHealth; Enterprise Community Partners and others.