Mental illness costly on the pocket

18 November 2013

As if the burden of suffering from a mental health disorder wasn't heavy enough, research shows that untreated mental illness in South Africa also costs sufferers a cumulative R30-billion in earnings each year.

This figure dwarfs the projected annual expenditure on mental health services of R500 million, say the UCT-led researchers.

These findings – published in late 2012 – were the result of pioneering research into the relationship between mental health disorders and lost income in South Africa, led by Professor Crick Lund, the director of UCT's Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Health, in collaboration with a number of researchers from UCT and the Harvard University School of Public Health.

"Our findings support the argument that it costs South African society more to not treat mental illness than to treat it,” says Lund.

The actual cost of lost earnings might be even higher, say the researchers, as their analysis excluded child and adolescent mental disorders, as well as other severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar mood disorder.

At a commemoration of World Mental Health Day in October hosted by Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Health, Lund said that one in six South Africans per year will have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Lund also spoke about the Global Mental Health Action Plan between 2013 and 2030 that has been adopted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and which promises to scale up mental health services.

At the same meeting, South Africa's national Department of Health (DoH) was praised by Professor Inge Petersen, the PRogramme for Improving Mental health carE (PRIME) SA's principal investigator, for its Mental Health Action Plan. This seeks to integrate care for depression with care for chronic disease care. PRIME SA, funded by UKAID's Department for International Development, is investigating the best ways to scale up mental health services.

People suffering from depression were less likely to live healthily and seek proper treatment for chronic diseases such as HIV, which affected the impact of anti-retroviral treatment, said Petersen, making this integration crucial for improving health care.

Story by Yusuf Omar.

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