Almost 44-million adults in American experience mental illness each year, including some 10-million adults living with a serious mental illness. Given the prevalence of mental illness it makes sense that the economic costs of mental illness were a whopping $57 billion in 2006, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The problem? We are spending that money all wrong.
Consider this—nearly 60 percent of adults with a mental illness did not receive mental health services in the previous year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. So if we are not spending money on treatment, how do we spend it? It crops up in other places in our economy – in lost wages and productivity, social services, prisons, jails, and elsewhere in health care.
North Carolina’s own Commissioner of Adult Corrections and Juvenile Justice, David Guice, has acknowledged that “our prisons and jails have become de facto mental health hospitals.” Lost productivity takes the form of missed work either because the worker is experiencing mental health symptoms or needs to care for a loved one who is. And it can lead to job loss and homelessness. About 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters have a serious mental illness. And every emergency room in North Carolina treats people who are in crisis and have no access to services.
What a waste.
Imagine if our nation, our state, and our communities ensured that people with mental illness got the support they need. That would include active treatment including medication or therapy, and other supports like assistance in finding and keeping a job. It would mean more days earning a paycheck and fewer nights in jail. More diplomas and fewer hospitalizations. More connection and less isolation.
One step toward that end is to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. The simplest first step is to pay attention to language. Stop using words like “crazy,” “lunatic,” or “psycho.” If you feel safe doing so, talk openly about your own experiences and invite others to share their stories – without judgment. Acknowledge how common the experience of mental illness really is. Only then can we start spending smart on mental health, for treatment instead of expensive collateral consequences. It’s the smart thing to do.