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Editorial Reflections

UN’s World Happiness Report gauges costs of mental illness and health

 The second World Happiness Report (WHR) was released this fall.  It is a report to the United Nations by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (unsdsn.org/happiness). One section of it blends smoothly with the subject of my editorial last month.

Last year there was ridicule of the report largely based on the title.  In a statement released with the report, the editors explain, “The word ‘happiness’ is not used lightly.  Happiness is an aspiration of every human being and can also be a measure of social progress. 

America’s founding fathers declared the inalienable right to pursue happiness.  Yet, are Americans, or citizens of other countries, happy?  If they are not, what can be done about it?

In answering the questions of what affects happiness, the report states that the most important determinant is mental health.

Last month I commented on Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.  To simplify their conclusion: Name almost any social ill.  It is worse in countries where inequality is high.

On the subject of mental health they state that if you fail to avoid inequality, “you will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problem.  If keeping taxes and benefits down leads to wider income differences, the need to deal with the ensuing social ills may force you to raise public expenditures to cope.”

It sounds like a vicious circle.

Wilkinson and Pickett used information from World Health Organization surveys. The World Happiness Report uses self assessments gathered by the Gallup organization in their World Poll.

The World Happiness Report finds that depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems.  They are found to be highly correlated with levels of inequality in Spirit Level.

There are six central conclusions in the special report on mental health: 1) Mental illness is the single biggest determinant of misery. 2) It affects about 10 percent of the world population at any one time.  3) Worldwide, depression and anxiety disorders account for up to one-fifth of all disability, which involves massive costs in lost output.  4) Less than a third receive treatment.  5) Cost-effective treatments exist.  6) Schools and workplaces need to be much more mental health conscious.

Regularly we are bombarded with sensational reports of violence committed by a small minority of the mentally ill among us and suicides by bullied, depressed children. 

Lurking in the background in the media reports are the attempts by family and friends to find help in a complex system that is overcrowded and underfunded.

A friend works on the crisis line here.  Most of the calls they receive are not sensational.  They are from depressed or panicked people who need some help.

The World Happiness Report suggests beneficial side-effects of happiness:  “Happy people live longer, are more productive, earn more, and are also better citizens.  Well-being should be developed both for its own sake and for its side-effects.”

Nancy Minard - Contributing editor





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