This is the sixth in a seven week series examining the topic of child and youth mental health in B.C. As this is a complex and multifaceted topic, I will be narrowing my focus to a few popular beliefs and areas of concern that I have witnessed in my role as MLA. The purpose of this series is to debunk these beliefs, increase awareness of these concerns, end the stigma of mental health in our society and provide opportunities for you to impact what is happening in your community.
“The cost of not mending our services to provide adequate support to vulnerable children is huge. The human cost of suffering and despair is immeasurable. The economic costs of preventable long-term use of public services, unfulfilled human resources and drain on productivity are very clear. There are many more reasons to act than not.” – Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth
Reality: Mental health problems not only have devastating emotional, physical and social impacts on individuals and their families, they can also place an enormous burden on our economy. Conservative estimates find the direct costs (ie: health care, certain social services and income support) of mental health problems and illnesses to Canada to be at least $50 billion per year – with the total cost to the economy adding up to more than $2.5 trillion over the next 30 years.
However, the true economic cost is likely much higher as current estimates exclude expenses such as costs of caregiving and costs to the judicial system. In fact, if estimates in Ireland and Wales hold true for Canada, the current cost of mental illness is approximately $192 billion dollars.
In addition to these direct costs, there are also high indirect costs of mental illness. It is estimated that approximately 21.4% of the working population experienced a mental illness in 2011, resulting in the annual productivity impact of mental illness in the workplace to be over $6.4 billion. Similarly, a report out of the United States estimated the total lifetime economic cost of childhood mental health problems and illnesses to be $2.1 trillion. When translated to our smaller population, the cost in Canada would be roughly $200 billion.
And these expenses are not just felt by the public sector. With mental health problems and illnesses accounting for 79% of long-term disability claims and 75% of short-term disability claims, the costs for disability due to mental illness are the fastest-growing disability costs for Canadian employers. It is estimated that the private sector spends between $180 and $300 billion on short-term disability claims and $135 billion on long-term disability claims due to mental illness. With evidence suggesting that mental illness will be the leading cause of disability in high-income countries by 2030.
At this rate, the total cost of mental illness to society could soon be greater than the entire cost of the health care system in Canada.
While the economic costs of mental illness are evident, the savings that can be gleaned from improving services and supporting upstream initiatives can be harder to prove. For one, the benefits of reducing the rates of mental health problems are often not seen until the longer term. Because of this, the costs of mental health promotion and prevention are much easier to evaluate than the benefits. Similarly, cost-savings are not necessarily seen where the money was invested. For example, savings from investing in mental health education in schools are more likely to be seen down-the-line with reduced costs to the judicial and health care systems. As a result, it is hard to put an exact number on just how beneficial such programs can be.
That being said, there is a fair amount of evidence to show that the promotion of mental health and prevention of mental illness can go a long way in combating the rising costs of mental health problems and illnesses. A recent study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information suggests that there is a return on investment (ROI) for some mental health promotion and mental illness prevention interventions. The strongest ROI evidence can be seen for children and adolescents, where promotion and prevention programs have shown to provide huge and long-term impacts.
Although more detailed research and evidence within Canada is lacking, countries such as the U.K., U.S. and Australia have produced extensive economic evaluations of childhood and youth interventions. One study found cost-savings from $1.80 to $17.07 for every dollar spent on programming. While more research is needed to understand exactly how cost-beneficial such programs can be, it is clear that by investing in mental health we benefit both the economy, and society as a whole.
As an MLA, I have witnessed first-hand the impact that public opinion and engagement can have on encouraging the BC government to focus on a specific issue. With this in mind, please consider taking time this week to communicate to decision-makers the importance of making child and youth mental health a priority. A good place to start might be to contact your local MLA and let them know that you would like British Columbia to take more action to address the mental health needs of our youth. Perhaps starting with the recommendations made to government by the Representative for Children and Youth.
Please also consider urging your friends and family to write letters or emails to local Mayors, Councilors, MLAs and MPs, and the offices of the Premier and the Prime Minister. It is time for us to take long-lasting, substantive steps to ensure the necessary supports and resources are in place to support the mental health and well-being of our young people.