Economics and Mental Health: An Odd, Nuanced Combination

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Mental health is something very close to my heart. I have grown up seeing my grandma coping with mental illness and every grown up in the house telling me that she has some issue in the head, without going into specifics. In hindsight, I don’t think even they were fully aware of her situation. Later on, I also realised the deep financial crunch that my family underwent for her treatment and how there was little to no support available in any shape or form. These events left their mark on me. While deciding a theme for my thesis, I stumbled upon the economics of mental health, simply by process of elimination. The economics of mental health has had me intrigued, since.

Mental Health as a concept has gained a lot of momentum in the last few years with celebrities talking about their experiences, movies with mental health as the theme, and closer home, the much anticipated Mental Healthcare Act, 2017. Everyone seems to have experienced, heard or spoken about it. But then, there is so much more that needs to be comprehended. Everyone is trying to grasp what it means to have mental well-being and how to cope with mental health issues. The concept of survival of the fittest has moved from purely physical to something more holistic.

Let us pause for a second, and jump to economics. The textbook definition of the word is, ‘Economics is a social science concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services’. Every student of economics would next say that nations, governments, businesses, as well individuals make conscious rational choices to allocate the resources to fulfil their wants and needs in such a way that optimise the output.

Mental health and economics are two concepts that seem to very different from each other. One is abstract, the other quantitative. One is a new-age in its recognition, the other has existed since forever. But these two concepts have merged giving us an interesting area to study – the economics of mental health is a subject that fits blends together beautifully even if the notion does look a little strange to be merging in the first place.

Mental health, if considered as a commodity, has a lot of resources devoted to understanding its nature. Everyone is funding studies to comprehend what it means to be healthy in mind and not just the body. Although the government agencies are supposed to be the major provider of this commodity, it is the non-profit organisations that are truly reaching the masses with or without government funding. Understanding mental health and well-being has been challenging so far, as there is no one way of assessing a person’s mental health in its totality. The cost of the commodity is extremely high and very few to none provide insurance for it. There are limited producers in the market (in this case, institutions/experts in mental health) and new entrants find it extremely testing to survive, thus further increasing the cost of affording good mental health. And lastly, mental health is so essential that it cannot legally be denied to anybody. Such a commodity should (ideally) draw economists and economic research as it fulfils all the caveats of true economic commodity — with it being scarce, an absolute necessity and comparatively very little funding — but the research so far in this area is a bare minimum (McGuire, TG & Weisbrod, BA (1981). Economics and mental health).

Mental health and economics received much-needed attention after the release of the 2001 World Health Organization report named Mental Health: New Understanding, New Hope. Prior to that, mental health had been concealed with the veil of stigma and discrimination. The report highlighted the extent of mental health problems when it stated that about 450 million people suffer from a mental or behavioural disorder. The economic impact of this illness was brought out. It described how mental health affects personal income, the ability of the ill person as well as the caregiver to work, be productive and contribute to the economy.

Economics is concerned with the use and distribution of scarce resources among individuals in the most optimal manner. Optimal allocation of available or potentially available resources is very relevant in the health sector, where the demand for health needs are infinite. The economics of mental health aims to stress upon the role of mental health policy in reducing the gap between what is currently available and what resources are further needed to resolve our mental health issues through exploratory research.  Thus, it delivers the perfect package, gift wrapped with a bow and a note saying, ‘What does it take for mental health to be a topic of thought, if not discussion in every household, and which policies could we devise to alleviate the problem of mental health care reach, and who should it be devised for?’

This is what the economics of mental health is all about. A theme that opens up an inter-disciplinary platform to engage with two different fields and provide access to mental health well-being by assessing, compartmentalising issues, and then using an integrated approach to resolve them. The focus, here, could be on caregivers, persons suffering from mental health issues, or an area like the productivity of the working population, connected with insurance for mental health, or the allocation of public funds to resolving mental health and its effect on GDP. For all those who want to engage with national or international policies related to mental health, an economic lens may give one an edge and a new perspective to look into.

Melita Menezes is the Program and Outreach Officer, Bangalore at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Novartis