• Approaches to mental health problems are limited to two biomedical strategies.
  • More than 100 different other approaches have been suggested.
  • Employers must collaborate in working towards the next generation of treatment.

Anxiety and depression affect 400 million people worldwide, holding them back and inhibiting their ability to thrive at work, at home and in society. Mental health is one of our greatest global health threats. Yet, despite increasing recognition of the burden of this disease, there has been little advance in treatment options or outcomes achieved for the last half century.

Beware of anyone who tells you there are simple clear approaches that will “sort out” mental health in your workplace. There are many attractive well-being offers, but the truth is that we are still at the foothills of understanding what works for whom and why. Currently, for all ages, our approaches to most mental health problems are limited to two basic biomedical strategies – medication and talking therapies. Of those who access one or both of these, only around one-half show measurable improvement. Furthermore, we know little about how the existing treatments work, when they do, nor why they help some people and not others.

More than 100 different other approaches have been suggested that might help, ranging from exercise to peer support and engagement with the natural world. Yet, the vast majority have never been rigorously explored or researched.

We are starting to move beyond the myopia of only researching these two interventions and to start exploring the impact of other approaches, such as the neurobiological effect on depression of engagement with the arts or singing in a choir.

The work of the Friendship Bench has rightly captured attention. It takes the principles underlying talking therapy and adapts them to meet the needs of communities. There are interesting new scientifically tested approaches emerging, but it can take decades to move from learning what works to this being applied in practice. For example, groundbreaking work has shown that playing a computer game for 10-15 mins following a traumatic event can reduce the likelihood of developing PTSD. Yet, this is nowhere in routine practice. We must find better ways to bridge science and practice.

A Zimbabwean Friendship Bench, a vital measure in a country where more than 70% live below the poverty line.
A Zimbabwean Friendship Bench, where therapy is adapted to the needs of the community.
Image: World Economic Forum

Workplaces have a vital role to play. Key individuals could work with researchers to find out what works best for their workforce given their particular context. Initiatives that bring together workplaces and researchers, such as the alliance being led by Cary Cooper from Alliance Manchester Business School and other international alliances are exciting developments in this regard.

For Wellcome, transforming understanding, prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression in young people is a priority. Mental health is by no means a health issue exclusively of the young, but with most mental health problems starting before the age of 24, there is an urgent need to intervene early to prevent these problems from becoming long term. Through a £200 million commitment over the next five years we want to support approaches and treatments to help move us to a world where more people can manage good mental health with the support of their employers, the state and society.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

We see employers as important collaborators both with researchers to find out what works for whom in different contexts, as well as with us and others as advocates who can work with governments to ensure there is greater scientific research to develop and embed the next generation of treatment and approaches.

Never has there been more global attention on mental health. We must seize the moment to unite with the common purpose to improve people’s lives.