Published on Investing in Health

How to promote mental well-being for societies to thrive

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“Put simply, the mental health problem is medical, but the solutions are not just medical—they are social, environmental, and political.”

—Thomas Insel, former director, National Institute of Mental Health, United States, Healing (2022)


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is an opportune time to acknowledge the critical importance of mental health in our everyday lives, and to recognize that mental illness is a big source of human misery.   

Mental health is increasingly recognized as a development issue

The World Bank Group, in partnership with other national and international organizations, has been supporting efforts to increase awareness about mental health as a development challenge and the associated costs of inaction. The Bank has hosted discussions to debate the economic and social benefits of investing in mental health across sectors. 

Analytical work is expanding the knowledge base for action. A recent report focused on the indirect costs of mental health for adolescents and young adults in Latin America and the Caribbean and its potential impact in lowering human capital in the region. In countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sint Maarten,  and Yemen, the Horn of Africa, as well as under the COVID-19 Global Emergency Response Program, mental health activities have been supported as part of investment projects.

Given the growing global recognition about the vital role that mental well-being can play in fostering healthy and resilient societies, here we delve into the interplay between mental health and other societal outcomes, and on policy implications.

Mental health shapes and is shaped by many aspects of life

A recent OECD report highlights significant disparities in well-being between individuals with poor mental health and the general population. Those experiencing mental distress are almost twice as likely to have low incomes, be unemployed, or be dissatisfied with neighborhood safety and green spaces. Furthermore, they are over twice as likely to be unhappy with their time use and to have low trust in others, and their likelihood of feeling lonely is over four times higher. Conversely, the report identifies protective factors that enhance resilience and support good mental health, including financial security, good physical health, a safe and clean environment, and healthy social relationships.

We illustrate these findings in more detail and discuss what policy makers can do to enhance these protective factors:

  • Material conditions:  Material conditions, including income, employment quality, and housing, both influence, and are influenced by, mental health. Adverse material conditions like job insecurity and substandard working environments can trigger stress and worsen symptoms of mental ill-health. Simultaneously, mental health issues can contribute to negative financial and labor market consequences. By enhancing access to social services, integrating mental health with employment services, and offering tailored public housing solutions, policy makers in non-health sectors can mitigate the impacts of poor mental health.
  • Quality of life:  Quality of life considerations encompass education, physical health, and environmental conditions. Education equips individuals with critical skills that improve mental resilience by enhancing problem-solving abilities and facilitating social interactions, which are crucial for managing life's stressors. Physical and mental health are linked: chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes may make a person more likely to have or develop a mental health condition. Environmental factors like pollution, limited access to green spaces, and climate change negatively affect mental health, leading to feelings of helplessness and anxiety. Promising strategies that blend mental health and quality of life factors include integrating physical and mental health services, promoting physical activity and lifelong learning, and accounting for the mental health costs of climate change.
  • Community relations:  Mental health is profoundly influenced by the quality of interpersonal and community relationships. Social conditions such as isolation, work-life imbalance, and unsafe environments can heighten mental health risks. Vulnerable groups such as women, sexual and gender minorities, and other marginalized populations, often face additional stresses like intimate partner violence, stigma, and discrimination. Creating safe, inclusive communities is critical for mental well-being.  Strategies to improve community relations might involve urban design that encourages safety and social interactions, addressing the uneven burden of unpaid work often carried by women, and expanding political representation of those with lived experience of mental ill-health. Such measures can reduce emotional exhaustion, foster stronger social networks, and broaden civic participation, all of which are essential for both preventing mental health issues and promoting community well-being.

Implications for the global health and development agenda

Policy makers in countries and international agencies need to reflect on how to create policies to jointly support good mental health and well-being.

The above consideration aligns well with the World Bank Group's mission to promote development that is inclusive, resilient, and sustainable. By acknowledging human capital as a vital element of national wealth and prosperity, it signals the need to prioritize mental health along with physical health and education as vital investments for sustainable development.

The results from a recent meta-analysis of the economic impacts of common treatments for mental ill-health in low- and middle-income countries show a strong correlation between mental health improvements and economic outcomes, suggesting that enhancing mental health can reduce poverty by boosting employment opportunities and livelihood creation.

Going forward, we need to keep in mind that addressing mental health challenges requires a comprehensive and integrated multi-sector approach beyond biomedical interventions. To be effective, sustained efforts are needed to build coalitions across – and beyond – government, adopt new ways of working to focus on the interconnectedness of various aspects of life, and leverage resources across sectors


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Patricio V. Marquez

Former World Bank Group (WBG) Lead Public Health Specialist

Lara Fleischer

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Jessica Mahoney

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

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