Mental health data and where to find it

Mental health data and where to find it 

Mental health has become a rising concern across the world following the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the first year of the pandemic triggered a 25% increase in depression and anxiety worldwide, with women, young people, and those with pre-existing physical health conditions worst affected. 

The current state of mental health data 

Against this background, the scale of current data gaps on mental health, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), is an increasing cause for concern. For example, global coverage of prevalence data for six mental disorders in ages 5-17 years is just 6.7%. Coverage is especially low in LMICs, with no region in sub-Saharan Africa having more than 2% prevalence data coverage for any disorder. 

Why having good mental health data matters 

Having timely, representative, good-quality data on mental health is essential to provide an evidence base for decision-making, drive policy change, ensure accountability, and make the case for increased investment and improved access to services. 

During a lively, well-attended session on data advocacy at the recent Global Mental Health Action Network (GMHAN) Annual Meeting in Cape Town, we heard powerful examples of how participants have used data in their advocacy to secure youth involvement in policy reform in the Caribbean, a new Mental Health Act in Nigeria, and the decriminalisation of suicide in Ghana. 

Key sources of mental health data and recommendations for improving it 

To help advocates to find and use mental health data in their work, UnitedGMH has published a new policy brief on Mental health data and where to find it. The policy brief summarises and signposts the main sources of data relevant to mental health. It covers data available from both official sources (governments as well as and intergovernmental organisations such as the UN) and unofficial sources (e.g. the private sector, civil society organisations and citizen-generated data). It outlines the pros and cons of different datasets, identifies current data gaps and makes recommendations for action. Examples of these include:

  • Routine inclusion of questions on mental health in national census and survey questionnaires.
  • To maximise the utility of the WHO’s Mental Health Atlas, government focal points should complete the next survey questionnaire comprehensively, consult colleagues in other departments and involve civil society organisations and mental health advocates in the process.
  • The World Bank should use the opportunity of developing its new mental health strategy to increase its collection and use of mental health data. 
  • The adoption of common metrics for mental health research by funders and researchers to increase the usefulness of the data.
  • While one-off data collection via surveys, polls and research studies can provide useful snapshots and highlight emerging issues, regular, sustained data collection is especially useful for decision-making.
  •  Big data and AI offer potential benefits for increasing the collection and use of mental health data, but they come with significant risks, underlining the need for a cautious approach. 

Next steps 

There is renewed interest in data for development more broadly as we approach the mid-point of the SDGs, and this year’s SDG Summit. This provides an opportunity to highlight the need for greater investment in the collection and use of data on mental health. 

Based on the recommendations of this paper, we would strongly encourage donors to coordinate their investment; governments to prioritise better mental health data collection; and all stakeholders to identify and address areas with significant data gaps, including child and youth mental health, and the impacts of climate change and the environment on mental health.

Given the level of interest in using data for advocacy at the recent GMHAN Annual Meeting, we are exploring the launch of a new Working Group on this issue – watch this space for further information !

Join the Global Mental Health Action Network here.