Mental illness still not a priority

I was dismayed to read the results of two recent studies examining the way governments and societies view mental illness.

In spite of gradually increasing awareness and the ongoing fight against stigma, studies are showing mental illness is still under-treated and under-funded.

A 15 country study conducted by the World Health Organization and published in May in the British Journal of Psychiatry found in spite of often causing higher disability, mental illness is under-treated compared with physical illness in high, low and middle income countries.

Survey participants were asked about common physical ailments including asthma, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, back and neck pain, chronic headaches, other chronic pain and stomach ulcers. In addition, the survey asked about mental illnesses including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, impulse control disorders and intermittent explosive disorder.

Researchers measured treatment sought and received for both types of illness and also evaluated the level and type of disability reported by study participants.

In general, study participants reported more disability from mental than physical illnesses – and this finding held just as strongly in low and middle income countries as in high income countries.

Further, the higher level of disability was more pronounced in the areas of social and personal relationships than in work our household productivity. Disability in productive functioning was reported as roughly the same for mental and physical disorders.

Not only does mental illnesses cause more disability, but the proportion of people receiving treatment at the time of this study was significantly lower for mental than physical ailments – especially in low and middle income countries.

I find it particularly disturbing that so many people with serious mental illness do not receive treatment even when experiencing significant disability.

Unfortunately, Canada is no exception. It is widely accepted among mental health professionals that mental illness is under recognized and under treated even here in our own country.

It doesn’t help that our healthcare system still treats mental health as the underprivileged cousin. A major study of mental health spending in this country shows Canada ranks below most developed countries in the amount we spend to treat mental illness.

This study, published in May in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, found that in 2003-4 Canada spent only 4.8 per cent of the total health budget on mental health.

European health economists consider five per cent the minimum acceptable amount for governments to spend – and Canada ranks last (along with Italy) in mental health spending among developed countries.

This study also showed major differences in mental health spending between provinces. Saskatchewan and Ontario spent the least in Canada at 3.5 and 4.3 per cent and BC was the top spender at 6.4 per cent.

Unfortunately, the lack of funding has a trickle down effect. If our governments don’t acknowledge the prevalence and serious impact of mental illness, this is reflected in funding, available services and awareness campaigns and it affects the likelihood of people reaching out for help when they need it.

Canada needs a unified and integrated approach to treating mental illness and needs to accept the reality that mental illness is ranked as one of the most disabling health problems in our world today.

If you think you experience a mental illness, don’t be afraid to speak to your doctor about it. Help is available.


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