Mental health: We need to face the facts

WHEN a relative of mine was diagnosed with cancer, I told her to get over it. “Just think about something else,” I said. “It’s your body, anyway! Why can’t you just stop it from producing the cells? Just get over it.”

Except I didn’t say that, because I’m not an awful person, and coincidentally, that’s the same reason I didn’t tell a friend of mine to just ‘get over’ her depression. Mental illness is just that – an illness. A sufferer of depression is no weaker, no less deserving of treatment and empathy than someone with a physical illness. The symptoms are just less obvious – and far more misunderstood.

The main problem with the treatment of the mentally ill is that there’s still a stigma attached to admitting to having a problem. The reason there’s still a stigma is because there’s almost no awareness of the problem, despite its prevalence within society. Due to the lack of awareness, people believe that mental illness is a problem that affects relatively few people, and treatment options are limited accordingly. Society’s current ideas of mental illness are something along the lines of ‘it won’t happen to me, so why should I care’?

Well, perhaps that’s precisely why. Even if you don’t personally suffer from mental illness, it’s likely that it’s affecting you in ways you don’t know about. The British economy loses £30bn (yes, you read that right) a year due to sick leave and absences caused by mental illness. The total cost to families and individuals affected by mental illness is estimated to be somewhere around the £54bn mark. The NHS and other social care avenues spend £21bn per year on treating mental health issues. Already, we have a problem; the cost of dealing with mental illness is less than half the cost of ignoring it. Yet, in this time of economic recession, during which cases of depression have sky-rocketed, NHS services across the country are cutting costs in their mental health departments by hundreds and thousands of pounds. NHS services are already unsuccessful enough as it is when dealing with mental illness; waiting lists go on for months, referrals take weeks to process and it’s not unheard of for patients to get fed up and decide to forego treatment, with dire consequences to their health and, on a broader societal level, the economy and society itself.

Instead of ignoring mental health issues and pretending that it’s something that affects only a handful of us, we need to face up to the facts. Estimates show that approximately one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives, one in 100 of whom will become seriously ill from it. We can’t say that mental illness is too costly to treat; as already shown, it costs far more to ignore the problem. By allocating more funds to help it, rather than less, the eventual costs of treating mental illness will fall. Funding in the areas of research and destigmatisation is most desperately needed; if the public understands and is sympathetic towards mental health issues, more people will feel able to seek treatment. Clearly, the technique of withdrawing funding from NHS trusts in this department hasn’t worked; between 2009 and 2010, the total cost of mental illness to the economy increased by over £28bn. Early government figures have suggested that the worldwide cost of mental illness in the UK was around the £100bn mark in 2012, yet 73% of British workplaces still don’t have a mental health policy. Clearly, something has to be done, and soon.

Essentially, not only is the economy suffering from our failure to engage with and properly discuss the issue of mental illness, but the very society that claims to be so tolerant of it, is letting sufferers down badly.  You know what? I’m mentally ill. I suffer from an illness that is not my choice, and I control it the best I can while holding down a job and studying for a degree. I’m sick of being referred from GP to GP to specialist to hospital outpatients to GP. I’m sick of being told to ‘get over it’ because it’s ‘not your problem’. I’m mentally ill. Why don’t you get over it?