Rich nations are failing Covid-19's mental health test: OECD

Beyond the suffering of individuals, government shortcomings have broader economic consequences.
Beyond the suffering of individuals, government shortcomings have broader economic consequences.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - Governments are falling short in most areas where they could tackle mental health difficulties that sharply increased in the Covid-19 pandemic and already place a huge burden on economies around the world, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said.

The warning comes as the Paris-based organisation published its first attempt at benchmarking the efforts of its 38 members to address the social and economic costs of the phenomenon.

It found the share of spending declined in some countries in the last decade, and that even if access to services is improving, 67 per cent of people who wanted care reported difficulty getting it.

"No mental health system delivers excellent performance across the board," the OECD said. "In some areas, even the countries which are doing best cannot really be considered to be delivering excellent performance."

Beyond the suffering of individuals, government shortcomings have broader economic consequences. The OECD estimates mental ill-health costs more than 4.2 per cent of economic output, factoring in expenditures on treatment and lower productivity and employment.

The challenge is set to mount with countries observing a surge in reported symptoms in 2020. Already before the pandemic and months of lockdowns and social distancing, one in five people were estimated to be living with mental ill-health at any given time.

"Since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, levels of mental distress have increased sharply, especially among young people, with prevalence of anxiety and depression even doubling in some countries," the OECD said.

The organisation urged governments to make integrating mental health into education and employment policies a norm rather than the exception.

The report showed that people affected were less likely to be employed and have a lower level of education, and those with serious conditions still have much lower life expectancy than average.

The OECD also said most countries have struggled to measure whether their health systems are effective, and its efforts in the benchmarking exercise were hampered by poor data availability.

"Countries must invest more in developing stronger and more widely available data on the key dimensions of mental health performance to drive faster and more meaningful improvements," the OECD said.