Mental illness: the cost to countries

The World Health Organization recently placed an emphasis on mental health, with health being defined as: "complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity", endorsed by all WHO’s 191 member states.

According to WHO, mental illness is still an undefined and hidden burden. The undefined burden refers to the economic and social burden for families, communities and countries. Although obviously substantial, WHO states that this burden has not been efficiently measured.

Mental illnesses affect the functioning and thinking processes of the individual, greatly diminishing their role and productivity in the community. In addition, because mental illnesses are so disabling and last for many years, they take a tremendous toll on the emotional and socio-economic capabilities of relatives who care for the patient, especially when the health system is unable to offer treatment and support at an early stage.

Social and economic costs
Some of the social and economic costs to countries include:

  • Lost production from premature deaths caused by suicide (generally equivalent to, and in some countries greater, than deaths from road traffic accidents)
  • Lost production from people with mental illness who are unable to work, in the short, medium and long term
  • Lost productivity from family members caring for the mentally ill person
  • Lost productivity from people being ill at work
  • Cost of accidents by people who are psychologically disturbed, especially dangerous in people like train drivers, airline pilots and factory workers
  • Supporting dependants of the mentally ill person
  • Direct and indirect financial costs for families caring for the mentally ill person
  • Unemployment, alienation, and crime in young people whose childhood problems e.g. depression, behaviour disorder, were not sufficiently well addressed for them to benefit fully from the education available
  • Poor cognitive development of children of mentally ill parents
  • Emotional burden and diminished quality of life for family members

The stigma attached to these disorders has exacerbated these problems. Rejection by friends, family and employers makes feelings of depression and loneliness worse for mentally ill people and they are often denied participation in family life, a normal social life and productive employment. This rejection also affects the family and caretakers of the mentally ill person and leads to isolation and humiliation.

The myths, misconceptions and negative stereotypes about mental illness have a detrimental effect on the mentally ill person’s recovery, on their access to services and the type and level of support they receive in the community.

The human rights of mentally ill people are therefore more vulnerable. In South Africa, people with mental illness have their rights and freedoms violated on a daily basis.

Through support groups and by openly talking about mental illness, South Africa may be able to overcome the immense social burden caused by mental illness. By countering the negative stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding these illnesses, and providing support and treatment services that enable all people suffering from mental illness to fully participate in all aspects of community life, we may also begin to counter the immense cost these illnesses entail.

For more information please contact the Depression and Anxiety Support Group on (011) 783-1474/6 or (011) 884-1797

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