Mental health issues cost EU countries more than €600 billion

Teenager girl with depression sitting alone on the floor in the dark room. [Shutterstock/Stanislaw Mikulski]

In many EU countries, mental health is still a taboo. However, the economic impact of psychological disorders is a loss of 4% of GDP and changes in the labour market only aggravate the situation, according to a report by the OECD.

A recent research carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one out of six people in the EU, or more than 84 million people, are affected by mental health issues. Around 10 million people a year experience mental disorders in Europe.

Besides the obvious impact on people’s lives, the research estimates the economic impact of mental health problems at more than €600 billion across the EU. Part of the cost goes towards spending on health care, about 1.3% GDP or €190 billion, and social security programmes (1.2% or €170 billion euros).

However, the most important economic impact is due to lower employment and productivity of people with psychological disorders. The cost in this area goes up to 1.6% GDP or €260 billion.

Finland (5.32% GDP), Denmark (5.38% GDP), the Netherlands (5.12% GDP) and Belgium (5.05% GDP) are the countries with the highest economic impact of mental disorders, while Lithuania (2.64% GDP), Czech Republic (2.45% GDP), Bulgaria (2.36% GDP) and Romania (2.12% GDP) are the least affected member states.

According to the OECD, these important differences between countries might be due to under-diagnosis and under-treatment of people with mental health problems in some countries, and not necessarily to a lower impact.

The most common mental disorders across EU countries are anxiety, which affects around 25 million people (5.4% of the population), followed by depression (21 million people or 4.5% of the population), and drug and alcohol disorders, which affects 11 million people or 2.4% of the population.

But mental health issues also cost lives. The OECD reports that more than 84.000 people died due to psychological problems in 2015 in the EU.

The OECD together with the European Commission has called on member states to promote and improve early diagnosis and treatment, since not all member states have specific strategies to address these issues.

Promotion and prevention would not only improve people’s lives but ensure better employment conditions and therefore strengthening the economy.

“The heavy burdens of mental illness on individuals and society are not inevitable,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

Mental health in the labour market

One of the main causes of workers’ short- and long-term work disability is mental health. According to the OECD, people suffering from chronic depression are less likely to be employed. In fact, only about half of the population aged 25-64 reporting chronic depression are in employment across EU countries.

However, even those who can work are less productive and more likely to be absent. This is the case particularly for people with anxiety disorders, who often show poor job productivity and work disabilities.

Although work can help people with mental disorders cope with their illness, poor working conditions can create and aggravate mental health problems.

The changes in the labour market, the difficulties in accessing social protection, poor working conditions and lack of predictability can also increase the chances for people to suffer from psychological disorders.

“Unemployment is a well-recognised risk factor for mental health problems while returning to, or getting work is protective,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) argues.

However, “a negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity,” the WHO has warned.

While work relationships were in the past characterised by full-time, open-ended contracts between a worker and a single employer, the digital revolution and globalisation have led to more flexible contracts or more independent workers.

As people with mental health problems are more likely to be subject to short- and long-term work disability, social protection is key to ensure an adequate access to care. People suffering from mental disorders and experiencing poor working conditions are more likely to face income protection gaps, an issue discussed at a recent EURACTIV event.

The European Parliament and the Council will soon start negotiations over a new European directive for transparent and predictable working conditions. This legislation wants to ensure that workers’ rights are covered in all forms of work, including non-standard such as freelancers, platform workers or casual work.

This directive, together with a strong social protection, early diagnosis and treatment and sensibilisation to break the taboo around mental health might help workers with mental disorders to improve their wellbeing while limiting the impact of psychological illness on the European economy.€

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