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Signposting financial-literacy assistance and providing digital therapeutics can help the growing number of people in need of support, and reduce strains and costs on health services.

Back in 2016, the WHO released a study estimating for the first time both the health and economic benefits of investing in treatment of the most common forms of mental illness globally. It found that every $1 invested in scaling up treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a $4 return in better health and ability to work. Commenting on the 2016 study's findings that treating depression and anxiety also makes sound economic sense, the then Director-General of the WHO said, "We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live."

To say that a lot has changed since 2016 is an understatement, but the need to improve access to mental health support and treatment has not. It has only become more pressing due to the dramatic increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression, and the backlog of cases needing support, combined with the increase in financial hardship, job insecurity, and loss of income due to the pandemic. Nesta data found that 30 per cent of people's finances have worsened during the pandemic.

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A bi-directional relationship

The impact of financial stress on mental wellbeing is an area of growing importance, as highlighted in this recent Forbes article featuring Wellmind Health's CEO, and awareness of the bi-directional relationship between debt and mental illness is increasing. Financial concerns can contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression; at the same time, mental ill health inhibits sufferers' ability to improve their situations and prospects.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has written that mental health should be a political priority, citing research that found depression and anxiety are up to three times as likely for those on low incomes and unemployed people are less mentally and physically resilient than those in work. The study described a mental health-based "poverty trap", in which job losses feed into anxiety and low self-esteem, knocking the confidence that is needed to find new employment.

The increase in fraud and scams is exacerbating the pressures on mental and financial wellbeing, beyond the amounts lost to fraudsters. As is the rise of buy-now-pay-later credit, with research from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute demonstrating that people experiencing mental health problems are significantly more likely to end up behind on payments for such credit products, or using this credit to buy things they can't afford.

Increasing access, reducing pressure, and lowering costs

With the advent of digital therapeutics (DTx), a cost-effective and flexible means of providing support and treatment became available that enables greater ease of access to interventions. Clinical studies show that mental health digital interventions can produce outcomes as good, and better, than traditional talking therapies. DTx came into their own during lockdowns and with social distancing measures in place, with adoption surging as healthcare providers and individuals turned to them when traditional means of support were cut off.

In the UK, The Social Market Foundation think tank is now urging the government to help GPs prescribe debt advice and job support to patients struggling with their finances. This holistic approach offers the chance to create a virtuous circle whereby stronger financial resilience helps improve or prevent mental ill health, and better mental health helps improve the prospects of those seeking employment or trying to escape debt cycles. The accessibility of DTx enables more individuals in need of mental health support to be reached, but they also help reduce the burden on overstretched healthcare services and lower the cost of providing effective mental health interventions.

The WHO study calculated a 5% improvement in labour force participation and productivity is valued at US$ 399 billion, and improved health adds another US$ 310 billion in returns. Providing financial education and cost-effective, accessible digital therapeutics can further enhance such gains while simultaneously contributing to improved mental wellbeing at scale, improved financial literacy, and reduced cost burdens for healthcare providers.

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