Mental disorders represent the loss of mental health, but mental health encompasses a broader concept that is essential to understand if we are to achieve a fuller and more satisfying life.
Mental disorders are common and very disabling. In addition to losses to society, they generate significant suffering for patients and those close to them.
One in four people will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime. Considering all illnesses, mental disorders are the most disabling group according to the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation. How should we act on this picture and what investments are needed?
Social vulnerability and mental health disorders
The vast majority of mental disorders are not identified as such, let alone treated. Two out of every 10 people with a mental disorder receive some type of professional support in Latin America and this is often insufficient. Mental disorders are more frequent in women and in groups with demonstrated social vulnerability.
There are marked socioeconomic inequalities in the prevalence of and access to treatment for mental disorders. This is because poor people are more vulnerable to suffering from a mental disorder or because those with mental disorders have a greater propensity to fall into poverty.
The poor have greater difficulty in accessing treatment because they cannot afford to pay for it out of pocket, nor do state services offer a sufficiently wide range of services.
Another important reason that limits access to services is the stigma associated with mental disorders. As people, we are afraid to speak out if we have a mental disorder: of losing our jobs, of being isolated, of being discriminated against in our work and social life.
Have you noticed that we usually talk about mental disorders in the third person? As societies, there is a prejudice that mental disorders do not require as urgent attention as other illnesses, since they do not kill (even so, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people), or perhaps it is something that the person could avoid on his or her own, if he or she wanted to. When it comes to defining budgets, public policy decision-makers are often influenced by these or other biases.
We need greater investment
Investment in mental health in Latin America is low in relation to the total burden of disease attributable to these disorders. Mental disorders account for 20% of the total burden of all diseases in Latin America, but spending on mental health services is only 2% of the total that Latin American countries invest in health.
There are economic reasons to advocate for greater investment in mental health, such as improving productivity or reducing the number of days of medical leave due to these disorders. But there are also social or ethical reasons to call for greater investment. Access to treatment for mental disorders is a right that is included in various international treaties. On the other hand, many people with mental disorders are outside the labor force, such as the elderly or children, and are not considered in terms of productivity.
The COVID-19 pandemic exponentially increased the mental health crisis. After decades of being considered “the next emergency” because it was overtaken by some other need in public spending decisions, the time has come when we can no longer wait to prioritize mental health. Investing in it is urgent and a priority.
To learn more about this topic, we invite you to watch the recording of our webinar “Why it is essential to invest in mental health”.