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Mental health crisis costs rise

Jo Harper
March 26, 2021

A fourth wave of the pandemic is coming, characterized by angst, often burnout and mental illness. A new study suggests young people will be hit hardest by the rising economic costs of the pandemic.

Young people lining up in front of a fashion store
Young people look set to suffer most from the rising costs of the coronavirus pandemicImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Steinberg

Experience appears to tell us that mental health has been hit by the pandemic, but few have estimated its economic costs. A report entitled "Coronavirus generation. Growing up in a pandemic," prepared by the Polish Economic Institute, does precisely that and has found that young people are taking the brunt of the economic hit. 

The overall annual increase in costs due to COVID-19-related mental health problems among young people is estimated at 0.49% of GDP worldwide, i.e. $407 billion (€335 billion), it says.

That amount includes $185 billion in additional direct spending on health systems, $79.6 billion on improving social security programs, and $141.9 billion in indirect costs related to lower employment and decreased productivity, the report states. 

Mental health professionals agree we could be witnessing a major crisis. This "echo pandemic" will see a dramatic rise in mental health problems following the COVID-19 pandemic, David Dozois, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, told DW. 

Dozois said a poll by Mental Health Research Canada showed that the 18-34 age group was struggling the most from COVID-19.

Age differences key 

Those who reported the poorest mental health have been young adults and individuals who experienced financial adversity or were unable to receive care for other medical conditions. Not getting enough sleep, exercise, or face-to-face socialization also increased the risk for poorer mental well-being, the report notes.

"People from all walks of life have been hit hard by COVID-19, although different age groups tend to differ in the types of stressors that they're experiencing," Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia and author of "The Psychology of Pandemics," told DW.

Data visualization of mental health in Europe

In the UK, by the middle of 2020, almost one in five adults experienced some form of depression, this almost double the figure of one in 10 before the pandemic, according to the most recent data released by the UK Office for National Statistics.

"For many years there has been a rise in the number of young people experiencing problems with their mental health, and it is concerning to find that this has been significantly exacerbated due to COVID-19," Simon Evans, a lecturer in neuroscience at the University of Surrey, told DW.

The causes

The report notes that mental health has been deteriorated by reduced labor market opportunities, worse prospects for stable employment, the consequences of social isolation and stress resulting from potential effects of becoming infected with the coronavirus.

At the same time, it states, fewer marriages, more divorces, reduced fertility, increased social pathologies led by crime or alcohol abuse are also being witnessed. 

During the pandemic, financial support for critical mental health services was frozen in 93% of countries worldwide, according to the WHO, while demand for mental health support kept increasing.

COVID-19 impacting mental health

What needs to change?

Post-pandemic, several things needed to be done to avert a mental health crisis, Taylor said.

"It is critically important that governments find ways to offset the socioeconomic impacts experienced by people. The effects of job loss are of particular concern, because in the past, during economic recessions, the rise in unemployment has been linked to a rise in the rate of suicide, especially among working-age men," he explained.

"Ideally, there needs to be more widespread use of programs like those implemented in China during 2020, which involved TV programs and other media programs offering advice about mental health problems, web and internet apps for self-help, telephone hotlines, and teleconferencing facilities for linking people with mental health practitioners," Taylor argued.

Krzysztof Kutwa, an analyst at the Polish Economic Institute, told DW: "It is necessary to further pursue a countercyclical policy in the form of fiscal stimulation aimed at reducing youth unemployment."