Four in five of those suffering with mental health illnesses in Saudi Arabia are not seeking help or treatment, according to a landmark report which says untreated mental health illness costs the GCC $3.5 billion each year.
The PwC report, ‘Why GCC Governments should invest more in Mental Health’, said about 15 per cent of the GCC’s population suffer from mental health and illness in any given year, with the COVID-19 exacerbating the burden of mental illness.
Common mental health disorders include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, dementia and substance abuse.
Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization reported that anxiety and depression alone afflicted 284 million and 264 million people respectively worldwide. Yet the scale of the problem is likely to be larger as many never seek help from a qualified professional.
In Saudi Arabia, 80 percent of those with severe mental disorders do not seek treatment. Furthermore, some 34 percent of Saudis meet the criteria for a mental health condition at some point in their life, yet just four percent of the Ministry of Health budget is allocated to mental health.
Despite the high rates of mental health illness, there are only 2.85 psychiatrists per 100,000 population across the six GCC countries, the report found.
The authors of the report said that there is a strong case for investing in mental health across the GCC – globally, studies have found that for every $1 invested in scaled-up treatment for depression and anxiety, there is a $4 return in improved health and productivity.
Lina Shadid, health industries leader at PwC Middle East, said: “One out of four people will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime. Yet more than 75 percent of those who need mental health care do not seek it.”
In addition to the devastating impact on sufferers and those around them, poor mental health can have drastic negative economic consequences – both in terms of lost wages due to diminished productivity and increased medical costs, said Shadid.
“The economic case for investing in mental health has never been clearer. In our newly launched report, we estimate that in the GCC at least 37.5 million productive days are lost per year due to untreated mental illness. This is equivalent to $3.5 billion. It is abundantly clear that if not properly addressed, mental disorders will continue to have an increasing toll across the GCC.”
“The good news is there are numerous cost-effective interventions available to governments to help to improve educational outcomes, reduce criminal justice costs, boost workplace productivity, and, most importantly, reduce mortality and improve the quality of life of their citizens.”
The report found that stigma towards mental illness is a major barrier to accessing mental health care in the GCC.
This is often as a result of misconceptions and limited understanding of the diagnoses, social and cultural beliefs, and stereotypical media portrayals of people with mental illnesses. A survey conducted with 1,000 participants in the UAE found approximately 30 percent of participants were reluctant to seek help due to the fear of being judged by employers and harming their career progression.
Access to mental health care in the GCC is also made difficult by limited insurance coverage for mental health conditions and by unaffordable prices for services, the report found.