Mental Health Awareness Month: Saving Lives Through Sports, Iceland Case Study

May 29, 2024

(New York, 11 April 2024) - This May, the mental health awareness month, Motko explored potential public health strategies to combat mental health illnesses. 374 million, 283 million, 280 million, 45 million, 703 thousand – number of people affected by anxiety, alcohol abuse, depression and bipolar disorders globally. The last figure is the number of deaths by suicide. The year is 2024. The annual global economic burden of mental disorders is currently estimated at around $1 trillion in lost productivity. In the United States alone, mental illness costs the economy $282 billion annually.  In an era marked by technological advancement and digital connectivity, people seem to feel lonelier than ever. Solely this factor – loneliness – is a major contributer to mental health illnesses. Have we been here before? While the past may not be a predicement of the future performance, it does provide valuable lessons and case studies that can be applied to solve the current challenges. Searching for solutions, Motko team explored one of the greatest health turnaround stories: Iceland.

If you googled Iceland, you would see all the top rankings the country is in – from Bloomberg's Healthiest Country Index to WHO ranking. However, it was not always the case. Back in the 20th century, Iceland was far from being in the top ranks for health and well-being. The country was plagued by alcohol abuse, mental health disorders and high suicide rate. Drinking was a common form of socialisation. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), per capita alcohol consumption in Iceland peaked at around 14 liters of pure alcohol per person annually in the 1980s and 1990s. In the late 1990s, 1 in 5 Icelanders experienced mental health ilness, such as, anxiety or depression. Suicide rates were on the rise, reaching round 20-25 suicides per 100,000 population per year. The complexity of these issues stemmed beyond a household or an organisation – it was a national concern. The Icelandic government stepped in to address health issues through a number of comprehensive and coordinated approaches.

The integration of sports initiatives alongside measures to tackle alcohol problems were pivotal to resolving the complex nature of public health. Here are the key elements to the Icelandic government’s health strategy.

·      Enforcement of Regulations and Public Health Investments

To regulate alcohol sales and consumption, Iceland introduced restrictions on alcohol advertising, as well as increases in alcohol taxes. Iceland invested in sports infrastructure and community facilities to make sports more accessible and appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds. This included the development of sports complexes, recreational centers, and youth sports leagues across the country.

·      “Youth in Iceland" Program

The program emphasized the importance of positive youth development, community engagement, and alternative activities to alcohol and drug use. Sports and group activities became integral components of youth development programs in Iceland. These initiatives included organized sports leagues, community recreation centers, and after-school clubs, which kept the youth engaged in positive activities and taught importance of discipline and teamwork.

·      New Way of Socializing: Peer Influence and Support

Through sports and group activities, people found supportive peer networks and commaderie. As more Icelanders became involved in sports and recreational activities, they adopted alternative ways to socialize and connect with others that did not revolve around alcohol consumption. Instead of drinking as a form of social engagement, Icelanders connected with others and developed a sense of beloning through their became their sports teams and community groups. Don’t we all want to be a part of a community?

·      Health Promotion and Education

Sports and group activities became platforms for health promotion and education. Government and non-profit organizations utilized sports events, fitness classes, and community gatherings as opportunities to raise awareness about the importance of physical activity, nutrition, and responsible alcohol consumption through positive reinforcement.

Strategies that Icelandic government deployed to transform health and welll-being of its people can be achieved in other countries as well. Iceland’s history demonstrates that a coordinated strategy including youth programs, health education and social sport activities can save lives and a nation. The adaption of these strategies across more countries, especially those with high mental health burden, would dramatically improve productivity and health levels, resulting better and more lives.

About Motko

Motko is an accredited health and well-being solutions provider for office and residential assets. We help corporations, governments and real estate stakeholders create healthier, happier and better performing communities. Licensed Works with WELL partner, Motko® operates a wellness technology division and a real estate consulting division. To learn more about Motko, please contact and visit