Health in Mind, Body, and Economy
Every year, untreated mental illness costs us hundreds of billions of dollars. This is merely from numbers accessible to estimators. Most of this money comes from the side effects of mental illness, such as physical manifestations, family and community problems, unnecessary unemployment, incarceration, or criminal activity, drug use, lower productivity in the workplace… The list goes on and on. Mental illnesses can even lead to a significantly higher rate of car accidents and other problems. In actuality, the numbers are probably much greater.
Despite the economic costs, mental health programs are generally one of the first spending areas to be cut. There is no single agency that administers mental healthcare, so programs are being attacked from the federal, state, and even local levels of government. School districts face entering the school year without a trained mental health professional on staff to care for at-risk children. Our veterans, who are known to have a higher risk for mental illness, are living on street corners and sidewalks because the country they risked their lives for refuses to make a full-faith effort to give them the care they need. And those who can least afford counseling and drug treatments (and who most need them) are hit when they are down by the Great Recession and government cuts to mental health funding.
We do not have a definitive strategy to improve the mental health of our citizens. Numbers of people reporting mental illnesses are increasing, and the National Institute of Mental Health shows that almost 50% of the U.S. adult population reports a mental disorder sometime during their life. And despite legislation to reduce discrimination in the workplace against those with mental illnesses, the stigma remains. We are no longer allowed to discriminate legally, so we just do it in practice. Furthermore, we can’t limit discrimination on persons who cannot contribute to their workplace because of a debilitating mental illness.
This takes a serious toll on our economy and our overall expectation for quality of life. Mental illness can consume a person’s life and energy. Likewise, it consumes our society when we allow it to contribute to social problems like prison overcrowding, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and a risk to public safety. It is a private problem for some, but a public problem for all of us. If we really want to control our debt, we need to consider the broad consequences of our actions and investments. And if we truly care about having an efficient government “of the people,” then it’s time we begin taking the challenge of mental illness seriously.
The answer is a mixture of public and private solutions. We need to ensure access to mental health professionals. We can’t have deserts where people cannot receive the treatment they need. We need to rein in prices that make health care unaffordable for people who, because of their illness, can already not afford treatment. We need to work to reduce the stigma of mental illness and offer care, not discrimination, to people who are contemplating suicide or self-injury or who need the help of a counselor. We need to take the first step to invest in research on mental health problems, with private investors following close behind. And we need to realize that mental health is a broad problem, not the responsibility of the hurting. Think about the improved efficiency in the workplace, the new tax base, and savings in other problem areas.
But most of all, we need to take a stand and work to protect the right to the pursuit of happiness of all our American citizens. What will you do?