Billions in Lost Earnings Attributed to Mental Illness
> 5/8/2008 12:44:16 PM

The emotional toll of mental illness can be overwhelming for the afflicted and their loved ones. Common illnesses like depression can lower the quality of life for years, impairing the ability to enjoy simple pleasures or the company of others. While this toll is clear to anyone who has personally encountered mental illness, it has been difficult to quantify in a way that can impress upon businesspeople the magnitude of the problem. In a step towards such quantification, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) conducted an economic study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Mental illness worsens the financial situation of the individual, their employer, and the economy as a whole. Some costs are obvious and easy to record objectively, such as the payment for a therapy session, but others, such as lost wages and productivity are much harder to pin down. Sometimes the raw numbers are there but require difficult analysis before they become digestible. For this latest study, Dr. Ronald Kessler led a team from Harvard University in an analysis of data from the 2002 National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R), focusing specifically on worker earnings.

The researchers found that a clear earnings distinction could be drawn between mentally healthy respondents and those reporting a serious mental illness (SMIs), a comprehensive category of disorders that have impaired a personís ability to function in the last month. Healthy respondents earned an average of $38,852, while those reporting an SMI averaged only $22,545. The drop in earnings affected all ages and genders, but it was particularly pronounced in men. When the researchers expanded these survey numbers for an estimation of the entire working population of the United States, they reached a staggering $193.2 billion annual loss.

One potential objection to these estimations is that people with SMIs might have already been the type of people destined to earn below-average wages. However, mental illness strikes across the entire demographic spectrum, and there are many otherwise high-performing people with mood and anxiety disorders. There are abundant treatments available for these people that would greatly raise their potential.

As the $193 billion estimate does not even consider all of the potential workers stuck in hospitals and prisons, it cannot be easily dismissed as an exaggeration. If lost earnings are combined with healthcare costs and workplace disruptions, we can begin to see the extent of the damage that mental illness does to our economy. While some businesses and politicians care more about profits and votes than quality of life, they may be motivated by quantified losses to better support their employees and constituents.

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