Latimer: Mental illness takes a heavy toll

Mental illness plays a role in our society to an extent that should not be taken for granted.  Not only does it take a heavy toll on the individuals experiencing it and those who love them, but it costs the economy big time and affects society on many levels.

Roughly 10 per cent of us will experience a mental illness at some point in life, yet this is still an area about which most people know very little.

For example, did you know mental illness is linked to more lost work days than any other chronic condition? It’s true. According to a report from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, mental illness costs the Canadian economy $51 billion a year in lost productivity. This is twice the cost of short term disability leave.

For every 1,000 Canadian employees, 145 take a short term leave each year and 20 of those are related to mental health. Interesting that this fraction can be costing so much. An average physical disability leave is 33 days when an average leave for a mental health concern such as depression, anxiety or post traumatic stress is 65 days.

Of course, lost productivity is not the only cost of mental illness.

According to a Vancouver Police Department report, 30 per cent of police response calls are related to mental illness. The mentally ill are the largest demographic in our prison population.

Approximately 15 per cent of children are dealing with a mental illness. Nearly a quarter of all deaths in the 15-24 age range are due to suicide. The mentally ill have an average lifespan that is 25 years shorter than normal. A person’s odds of dying after a heart attack are four times higher if that person is also depressed. And these are just a few of the statistics on mental illness in Canada.

At the same time, fully 75 per cent of mental illness goes untreated. When it is treated, it is usually dealt with by a person’s family doctor and primary care physicians will spend up to 80 per cent of their time dealing with mental health-related issues even if they are not identified. These symptoms can also be aches and pains, gastrointestinal complaints and insomnia—all common symptoms in many mental illnesses.

If we want to effectively deal with this national concern, it is critical that governments, employers and individuals make mental health a priority. Awareness, understanding and early intervention can go a long way toward preventing disability in the first place and improving the health of Canadians.

Employers can do this by helping employees access strategies for coping with stress and encouraging them to maintain a work/life balance as well as working to eliminate stigma in the workplace and providing early intervention strategies.

Canada needs to move forward on a national mental health strategy and the provincial health regions also need to coordinate their efforts. In B.C. we have divided our efforts between six health regions and there is little long-term vision or coordination between them. What is needed is communication between departments, cooperation between programs and professionals and a unified vision to tackle the many facets of mental health treatment.

B.C. is a known leader in treating cancer and HIV/AIDS and this is because of province-wide programs and coordination. We could take a similar approach to mental illness which is just as costly as cancer and results in many more deaths in our province than AIDS does today.

In order to lessen the toll of mental illness on us all, we need to treat it as the serious health problem that it is.