Depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability in the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), following a huge spike in the number of people who report living with the condition.
The condition has overtaken lower respiratory disease as the biggest global health problem, with latest figures showing more than 300 million people worldwide have a diagnosis of depression, an increase of more than 18 per cent between 2006 and 2015.
The organisation said it hopes the figures will lead to improved availability of effective treatment for the condition which carries a huge human cost as well as costing the world economy billions.
WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, said: “These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves.”
Dr Skekhar Saxena of the WHO said lack of understanding of the condition and prejudice towards those who suffer from it remain barriers to effective treatment.
“For someone living with depression, talking to a person they trust is often the first step towards treatment and recovery,” he said ahead of the launch of the WHO’s “let’s talk” campaign.
According to researchers, even in high income countries, nearly 50 per cent of people with depression do not receive treatment and drugs prescribed are often ineffective. On average, just three per cent of government health budgets is invested in mental health, varying from less than one per cent in low-income countries to around five per cent in high-income countries including the UK.
The WHO said investing in mental health makes economic sense and claims that for every US dollar invested in better treatment for depression and anxiety, there is a return of 4 dollars in better health and ability to work.
According to a separate WHO-led study, which calculated projected treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 low, middle and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030, low levels of recognition and access to care for depression and anxiety result in a global economic loss of a trillion US dollars every year.
Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to create parity of esteem between mental and physical health in the UK, but critics have suggested the motivation is purely economic, with an aim of “fixing” people and finding them fit for work as quickly as possible.
But some mental health professionals and campaigners say the human cost of the condition is immeasurable and the focus should not be exclusively on the estimated cost to the economy and on getting people “back to work” because this is not always helpful and can lead to further problems.
The UK’s leading bodies representing psychologists, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and counsellors recently wrote an open letter, published in The Independent, urging the Government to suspend benefit sanctions which are often imposed on people with mental health problems.
The letter suggested that far from being an automatic “cure” for depression, unhappiness at work can be a major cause of the condition, and that “bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.”
It said: “Suspending the sanctions system alone is not enough. We believe the Government also has to change its focus from making unemployment less attractive, to making employment more attractive – which means a wholesale review of the back to work system.
“We want to see a range of policy changes to promote mental health and well being. These include increased mental health awareness training for job centre staff – and reform of the work capability assessment (WCA), which may be psychologically damaging, and lacks clear evidence of reliability or effectiveness.
“We urge the Government to rethink the Jobcentre’s role from not only increasing employment, but also ensuring the quality of that employment, given that bad jobs can be more damaging to mental health than unemployment.”
WHO identifies clear links between depression and other mental and physical health problems.
“Depression increases the risk of substance use disorders and diseases such as diabetes and heart disease; the opposite is also true, meaning that people with these other conditions have a higher risk of depression.”