Europeans are plagued by mental and neurological illnesses, with almost 165 million people or 38 percent of the population suffering each year from a brain disorder such as depression, anxiety, insomnia or dementia, according to a large new study.
With only about a third of cases receiving the therapy or medication needed, mental illnesses cause a huge economic and social burden — measured in the hundreds of billions of euros — as sufferers become too unwell to work and personal relationships break down.
“Mental disorders have become Europe’s largest health challenge of the 21st century,” the study’s authors said.
At the same time, some big drug companies are backing away from investment in research on how the brain works and affects behavior, putting the onus on governments and health charities to stump up funding for neuroscience.
“The immense treatment gap … for mental disorders has to be closed,” said Hans Ulrich Wittchen, director of the institute of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at Germany’s Dresden University and the lead investigator on the European study.
“Those few receiving treatment do so with considerable delays of an average of several years and rarely with the appropriate, state-of-the-art therapies.”
Wittchen led a three-year study covering 30 European countries — the 27 European Union member states plus Switzerland, Iceland and Norway — and a population of 514 million people.
A direct comparison of the prevalence of mental illnesses in other parts of the world was not available because different studies adopt varying parameters.
Wittchen’s team looked at about 100 illnesses covering all major brain disorders from anxiety and depression to addiction to schizophrenia, as well as major neurological disorders including epilepsy, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.
The results, published by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ENCP) on Monday, show an “exceedingly high burden” of mental health disorders and brain illnesses, he told reporters at a briefing in London.
Mental illnesses are a major cause of death, disability, and economic burden worldwide and the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be the second leading contributor to the global burden of disease across all ages.
Wittchen said that in Europe, that grim future had arrived early, with diseases of the brain already the single largest contributor to the EU’s burden of ill health.
The four most disabling conditions — measured in terms of disability-adjusted life years or DALYs, a standard measure used to compare the impact of various diseases — are depression, dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, alcohol dependence and stroke.
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