Surveys help demonstrate mental health is as valuable as physical health

By Sarah Kline, CEO and Co-Founder at UnitedGMH, and Carolyn Culey, Data Advocacy Consultant

This year we are making the case that Universal Health Coverage means physical and mental health for all which requires increasing investment and updating policies accordingly.  Recent surveys confirm that this is what people want, and this is part of a longer-term pattern of support for the prioritisation of mental health among high-, middle- and low-income countries.

The newly published Edelman Trust Barometer special report, ”Trust and Health” surveyed approximately 1000 people per country in thirteen countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, *Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, UK and the U.S.

Edelman Trust Barometer special report

When presented with four dimensions of health and asked, ‘When I think about being “healthy,” I think about…’  an average of 91% of respondents said they thought about their mental health, a slightly higher proportion than those who selected physical health (88%), social health (83%) or community liveability 79%).

This pattern was the same across the twelve countries surveyed (this data excluded Nigeria), among men and women, and all age groups surveyed. 

Similarly, a Gallup survey of 113 countries, “Wellcome Global Monitor 2020 – Mental Health”, conducted between August 2020 and February 2021 found the vast majority of people (92%) viewed mental health as equally important to overall wellbeing as physical health.

This survey showed people in low- and lower-middle-income countries were more likely than those in higher-income countries to assign greater importance to mental health (58% compared to 28%). 

Meanwhile, the 2022 annual Ipsos World Mental Health Day survey, based on data from 34 countries, reported that for the first time, mental health (mentioned by a country average of 36%) ranked higher than cancer (34%) when people were asked to think about their top health concerns.

Over half (58%) surveyed said they “often” think about their own mental wellbeing and 76% said that mental health and physical health are equally important. Tellingly, however, only a third of those surveyed said that health services in their country treat them equally. 

Mental health advocates have long-argued that mental health should be regarded as being as important as physical health. These surveys confirm that this belief is now widely accepted by the public..

Three other surveys on mental health it is worth looking at are:

  • Gallup’s Global Emotions Survey – 1,000 people per country in 122 countries, data collected via telephone or face-to-face interviews. 
  • The third Mental State of the World Report – over 400,000 people across 64 countries, data collected via an open online anonymous survey. 
  • The World Mental Health Survey – 84,850 adult respondents in 17 countries (for the survey quoted by the 2018 Lancet Commission). All interviews were carried out face-to-face by trained lay interviewers.

These are only some examples but we highlight them for two reasons: 

  1. We can show mental health is a priority in many countries 
  2. We need to regularly survey a representative sample of all countries to help understand what people want to live healthier lives and strengthen the case for action on mental health

The priority people give to their mental health contrasts sharply with that of their governments. The 2022 WHO World Mental Health Report estimated that  rates of already-common conditions such as depression and anxiety went up by more than 25% in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic but on average WHO member states spend only 2% of their health budgets on mental health.  

If we are going to improve mental health we need to understand what people want to live healthier lives, and better data to inform decision-making. UnitedGMH has worked with Harvard, WHO, UNICEF and the Global Mental Health Peer Network to promote the improvement of mental health data through the Countdown Global Mental Health 2030 initiative.

Countdown aims to provide an overall monitoring framework on global mental health and a set of indicators for measuring progress. The latest monitoring report highlights significant data gaps – no specific report on mental health has been produced in the past two years in 60% of countries while only around 40% of countries have good-quality data that can be used to estimate suicide rates.

And when it comes to functional integration of mental health into primary care, there is still a long way to go, with only around 30% of countries crossing the threshold of achieving integration across at least four out of five key areas. 

To make the case that mental health matters as much as physical health, we need to use all the data we can get. Opinion polls (particularly those surveying multiple countries) are helpful in showing that the public already agree with this, and governments need to catch up.