The True Cost of Diminishing Declining Mental Health Rates

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In 2019, it was reported that 1 in 5 US adults experienced mental illness (51.5 million people) and that 1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness, meaning that their mental health severely impedes their daily lives (13.1 million people). This was an increase of 1.5 million more people compared to 2018 data. That same year, 1 in 6 minors displayed signs of having a mental health disorder. Despite this, 24 percent of adults with mental illness have an unmet need for treatment (a number that has not declined since 2011). 10.8 percent of Americans with mental illness are uninsured, and 60 percent of youth do not receive any mental health support.

This isn’t a one-off jump between 2018 and 2019. The rates of mental illness have been consistently increasing throughout the years. In the United States, there has been a suicide rate increase of about 35 percent between 1999 and 2018. Since 2006, this rate has been growing at approximately 2 percent a year, leading to suicide now being the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Between 2014 and 2018, outpatient spending on psychiatry grew by 43 percent, corresponding with the percentage of mental health claims more than doubling between 2007 and 2017.

These statistics have only worsened due to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 11 percent of adults specifically reported symptoms of anxiety or a major depressive disorder. In 2021, 41.1 percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. Rates of difficulty sleeping and eating, alcohol consumption, substance use, and chronic conditions have skyrocketed due to stress over the pandemic and related health and economic stipulations. Ultimately, it has become more evident than ever that investment in mental health resources – particularly within the employment sphere – is critical to sustaining our economy and society.

Workplace stressors such as economic insecurity and long hours cost the United States approximately $180 billion and 120,000 unnecessary deaths annually. The cost of major depressive disorder is deduced to be $210 billion – an increase of 153 percent since 2000. In the United Kingdom, the combined effect of mental illness is estimated to reduce GDP by 7 percent annually.

Part of this economic impact is attributable to reduced workplace productivity due to the effects of mental illness. Mentally ill people are much more likely to be out sick, and between a third and half of all days off work can be traced back to mental illness. Even when those afflicted are in the office, their mental illness reduces output by at least as much as absenteeism does. A 2019 Mind Share Partners report reflects these facts: 61 percent of the 1,500 employed respondents said that their productivity at work was affected by their mental health, while over a third of the group actually left jobs because of their mental health. In the wake of COVID-19, 90 percent of employers have concluded that behavioral health has reduced productivity.

This economic impact can also be extended to how mental illness exacerbates physical illness, leading to increased costs in physical health care. With diminished mental health comes diminished care for hygiene, nutrition, and other health practices that reduce physical illness and disease. People with mental health problems use 60 percent more physical health care services and have a 50 percent higher chance of mortality compared to equally ill people without those mental health problems. The cost of these extra health services in the UK comes to 3 billion pounds annually, with higher figures reported in the US due to higher health care costs.

Yet, while many employers and employees hesitate to take advantage of psychological therapy offerings due to its expenses—and many companies want to cut back on healthcare spendings as it already takes up most of their budget—psychological treatment is actually a bargain when considering the economic costs of untreated mental illness. For every $1 spent on therapy, $1 is saved on welfare benefits, and another $1 is saved on physical health care (with psychological treatment having the ability to reduce a person’s physical health care costs by 20 percent annually).

Making psychological treatment more readily available would help mentally ill people stay at work or find new jobs if unemployed (studies on CBT therapy have shown that unemployed people with access to therapy are twice as likely to find work). Productivity and output would increase by destigmatizing mental illness and making it a priority in the workforce, to the point where it’s estimated that treating all depression and anxiety disorders would boost GDP by around 4 percent.

Despite these figures, mental health benefits in the workplace still fall short, with access to a therapist being five times more likely to be out of network in a company’s health care plan in comparison to a primary-care practitioner. While 91 percent of employees in a 2019 Ginger survey claimed to believe that their employers should care about their emotional health, a third of those same employees confirmed that they had to pay out of pocket for behavioral health services.

Still, the complex intersection between occupational fields and the advent of mental illness isn’t an entirely bleak situation. There is a growing awareness of the impacts of mental health with increasing reports and studies being conducted and published, leading to some changes within the workplace. One-third of employers with more than 5,000 employees said that they would offer on-site psychological health counseling in 2020; for context, only one-fifth claimed the same thing in 2018. Virtual therapy, destigmatization and awareness, and new promises from employers all promise a commitment to improving the state of mental illness within the US, the UK, and beyond – the key to significant economic and social growth.