The Toll of Mental Illness

The Ottawa Citizen July 24, 2012

Comment 4 The scope of mental health problems in this country has been well-documented, the stigma of acknowledging the problem is lessening and more Canadians are coming forward to seek help. That’s good news, but our health care system has not been able to cope with the increased demand.

As with almost everything in health care, governments cite deficits and limited new dollars when asked to explain the inadequacy of mental health services. We know there is a cost to improving mental health, but a new study from the Conference Board of Canada puts a price on not tackling the problem.

It’s a staggering number. The conference board estimates that Canada’s economy loses $20.7 billion a year due to people being unable to work as a result of the six types of mental illness most prevalent among working age people, including depression, bipolar disorder and panic disorder.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, at least 500,000 Canadians are unable to work in any given week due to mental illness. Another study by the same organization found that at one Canadian resource sector company, disability costs from mental illness were $18,000 per employee, more than double the cost due to physical ailments.

The issue hits close to home in Ottawa. Mental illness accounts for nearly half of the disability claims in the public service. The health claims due to mental illness have more than doubled as a percentage of the total over the last 20 years.

Economic loss is a cold calculation that doesn’t take into account the toll mental illness takes on workers and their families, but perhaps it is an effective way to argue that Canada should be doing more.

Mental illnesses are costly for employers. They reduce output, push up supplemental health insurance expenses and lead to higher employee turnover.

With proper care, many people suffering from mental illness can be productive workers, but with mental health issues, as with any disability, timely treatment is important. It is in employers’ interests to spend what it takes to return a mentally-ill worker to productivity, but the services need to be there.

In 2007-’08, Canadian governments spent $14.3 billion on mental health services. The unanswered question is how increased spending would reduce lost productivity and get workers back on the job, and paying taxes, sooner.

The conference board study suggests that is a calculation government should be making. We know there is a cost to delivering prompt mental health care, but failing to do so could be costing Canada even more.

Ottawa Citizen

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