Mental health: The social cost of poor mental health

By Aurélia Morvan | December 27 2019 10:00AM

Photo: Nik Shuliahin (Unsplash)

Whether they be economic, technological, or environmental, global risks impact our psychological and emotional well-being. Declining mental health linked to sadness, anxiety, and loneliness is a risk in itself, one that can impact a variety of other issues, including the economy. The World Economic Forum (WEF) therefore looked at the human side of a troubled world.

In The Global Risks Report 2019 – 14th Edition, the WEF referred to the Gallup 2018 Global Emotions Report. Gallup surveyed more than 150,000 people in more than 145 countries to assess the world’s emotional state. Over a decade – between 2007 and 2017 - Gallup’s Positive Experience Index remained relatively stable, increasing by just 1 point, from 68 to 69 out of 100. But during the same period, its Negative Experience Index rose by seven points, from 23 to 30 out of 100.

While people still report many positive experiences, negative experiences are on the rise. The trend lines are “worrying,” according to the WEF, because a daily life marked by negative experiences can lead to deep unhappiness.

The causes of declining well-being: technology tops the list

Worldwide, mental health problems now affect an estimated 700 million people, or 10% of the population. This global health problem is related to profound transformations - societal, technological, and work-related – that are affecting people’s lives.

  • The major societal factors contributing to emotional and psychological distress are violence (including domestic), poverty, and increased loneliness among people living in large cities. The societal impact of rising loneliness is becoming such a concern that, in early 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a “minister for loneliness.”
  • Technology has a contradictory impact on mental well-being. On the one hand, it can cause loneliness and social isolation. On the other, it can facilitate interactions through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Moreover, while some studies have shown digital technologies to be addictive, others argue that such claims are overblown. One thing is certain, however: people are spending more and more time online on smart phones, desktops, and tablets. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the use of technology by young children. Too much screen time could cause functional impairment in young children by reducing learning through social interaction.
  • Technology is changing how people work, which can also affect mental health. Often mentioned in the context of the “right to disconnect,” the blurring of lines between work and private life is exhausting workers. Automation, which pushes workers to be more productive and sometimes threatens their jobs, and workplace monitoring, often seen as a lack of trust and a loss of privacy, are two other phenomena causing mental health problems in workers.
The consequences of declining well-being: Welcome to the age of anger

The question of mental health is itself an important issue from an individual perspective, but it can also affect many other areas.

Poor mental health can have political and societal implications. We know, for example, that people are becoming increasingly angry; some even suggest that this is the “age of anger.”  While anger can unite and mobilize people, as was the case with the Arab Spring, it can also divide them. An angry population can generate volatile electoral results and social unrest. Moreover, countries increasingly accuse rival states of using social media to foment anger and division among their voters.

A population’s poor mental health can also have economic repercussions. Research by the WEF and the Harvard School of Public Health revealed that, in 2010, the global economic impact of mental disorders was US$2.5 trillion. Indirect costs such as lost productivity and early retirement exceeded direct costs related to diagnosis and treatment. Poor mental health thus creates a significant economic risk for governments, employers, and insurers.

The 7 articles in this series:

  1. The environment: the greatest risk to the economy
  2. The U.S. turns inward: a risk to the global economy
  3. Mental health: The social cost of poor mental health
  4. Bacteria and viruses: Future weapons of warfare
  5. Rising sea levels: An increasingly real threat to coastal cities
  6. Ten major future shocks
  7. Ever-intensifying threats
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