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Another Voice: Mental health investments pay off for everyone

By William T. Gettman Jr.

While many of us may feel like mental health issues are something that affect other people, the truth is that most of us will be affected by a mental health disorder at some point in our lives. Recent research published earlier this year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that approximately 80 percent of the population will experience a diagnosable mental health issue, like depression, over time.

Consider:

Nearly 1 million people commit suicide every year; four of the six leading causes of years lived with disability are due to disorders such as depression, substance abuse, alcohol-use disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; and one in four families has at least one member with a mental disorder.

In a country where four out of five people struggle with a disorder, most will never receive treatment, and their family and personal relationships, job performance, personal health, life expectancy and life satisfaction will likely suffer. Family members often become the primary caregivers of people with mental disorders.

In addition to the health and social costs, those suffering from mental illnesses are also victims of stigma and discrimination, which makes getting the help people need even more difficult. Last, mental health needs can add large and long-term costs to our health care system.

It’s time for a change. The research provides some hope that timely and effective interventions can create a long-term change in behaviors, health and life conditions. A combination of well-targeted treatment and prevention programs can have a positive impact. These investments include all age groups, demographics and geography.

As we once again evaluate, debate and prioritize our national and state fiscal priorities, five areas of investment can allow individuals to avoid years lived with disability and deaths, reduce the stigma attached to mental disorders, increase considerably the social capital, help reduce poverty and promote our country’s development:

(1) Increasing funds for prevention, treatment and recovery services. (2) Expanding and fairly compensating the mental health workforce. (3) Widening the use of health information technology. (4) Advancing public education, especially in identifying needs in younger populations and school settings. (5) Continuing valuable research work and projects.

Mental health has been hidden behind a curtain of fear, stigma and discrimination for too long. We need to bring it out into the open. The magnitude, suffering and burden for individuals, families and societies are staggering. In the last few years, the world has become more aware of this enormous burden and the potential for mental health gains.

Investing in mental health today can generate enormous returns in terms of reducing disability and preventing premature death. The priorities are well known and the projects and activities needed are clear and possible. We have a responsibility to turn the possibilities to reality.

William T. Gettman Jr. is CEO of Northern Rivers Family Services in Albany.

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