Mental health is an economic problem. It is a problem that this country cannot afford to ignore. While we have made considerable progress in the last decade, mental health continues to be a sensitive issue. If we want to see real change we need a better understanding of the psychological, sociological and economic factors that contribute to the development and the implications of mental health disorders, and we need to continue the discussion, without stigma.
The Office for National Statistics estimate that 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health condition each year, and it is highly likely that you know someone who is suffering at present. When we compare this to prevalence rates of coronary heart disease (affecting 3.6% of the population at any point in time) or influenza (which has a seasonal incidence of 1 in 7) it is startling that only 25% of those afflicted are receiving ongoing treatment.
The impact that untreated and unrecognised problems have on those living with these conditions, on the healthcare system and our economic infrastructure is huge. The economic and social cost of mental health problems is greater than that of crime, amounting to over 2% of GDP in the UK. Mental health conditions dramatically increase risk of developing secondary physical ailments and Type 2 diabetes is twice as common in those who have suffered from major depression. Extreme levels of mental distress are highly correlated with substance abuse and anti- social behaviour. In youths and teenagers depression and anxiety can lead to unemployment and habitual criminal activity.
It makes economic sense to take a preventative approach, and to provide the support necessary to those who need it most, reducing the likelihood of secondary pathology. Lord Richard Layard of the LSE has campaigned heavily for increased expenditure in mental health care, having demonstrated the economic viability of taking such measures. Layard estimates that the costs of providing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to all those who need it would be quickly recovered, and that the longer-term impact on the economy would be wholly positive. The new science of happiness is promoting wellbeing and encouraging people to make choices that will provide them with a fruitful and fulfilling life, and research in organizational behaviour has highlighted the benefits that treating workers with respect and supporting their emotional wellbeing have on company performance.
There are multiple reasons for the delayed realisation that we need to treat our minds as well as we treat our bodies. It is very difficult to quantify or to visualise disorders of the mind. Treatment and diagnosis is not always an objective process, and friends, family and colleagues often struggle to understand that something is wrong. When Arianna Huffington collapsed in her office and lay in a pool of blood, it took too long for doctors to realise that the problem was burnout and exhaustion. Ruby Wax has been outspoken about dealing with her depression, but it took a 'mental car crash' to make progress. Despite suffering from symptoms for much of his life, it was only at the age of 37 that Stephen Fry was diagnosed as bipolar.
Mental health problems affect people from all walks of life; there is no discrimination based on age, gender or status. We all need to take care of our minds and recognise the collective importance of others doing the same.
A longer-term approach is needed; we must invest in our mental wellbeing. Ancient wisdom tells us that a healthy body and healthy mind are interrelated concepts, and that clarity in mind will lead to prosperity in other areas of life. Modern science is beginning to prove these links. But, if that is not enough, perhaps the realisation that we are paying the price for ignoring mental health not just medically, but also financially will lead to the changes that we so desperately need.