Better understanding of mental health could save the UK almost £50bn a year

It might sound counter-intuitive to argue that mental illness in the UK costs the economy £105bn a year (according the Centre for Mental Health), yet greater investment in mental health is still needed, in order to save money. The Coalition certainly thinks so: local mental health services could be facing up to £1.7m each worth of cuts in some areas. NHS Oxfordshire, for example, have already said they may have to cut this much as of April 2011, despite almost all mental health services being massively under-resourced to begin with. Charity Rethink warns that mental health services are always seen as a ‘soft target’ for cuts. But the cost of mental illness does not come from service provision. On the contrary, experts say the cost of the mental illness to the UK economy is so high precisely because provision is so poor – and greater support for sufferers and their carers could actually cut that bill almost in half.

Andrew McCulloch, the chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, says that the main problem is this: sufferers tend to reach their ‘crisis point’ before help actually becomes available, thus making help “significantly” more costly than it would be, had it been available at an earlier stage. There is a cost to employers, to take one small example, of £30bn a year, as a result of long-term sufferers having to work through their illness (or feeling that they have to work through their illness) without receiving adequate support.

The bombshell cost to the UK economy is not to employers, however, nor even to the NHS and other public services. Over half the cost to the UK economy comes from “impact on quality of life” for sufferers, their carers, and their families, which Bob Grove, the Centre for Mental Health’s CEO, says adds up to a national loss of around £53.6bn.*

And these figures don’t even include the costs involved in policing, or in the criminal justice system. Every year, an additional £1.6bn is spent arresting, charging, convicting and locking up with people with a mental illness.** The Chief Inspector of Prisons in West Mercia, after visiting prisons around the UK, estimated that around 41% of prisoners held in health care centres should actually have been in “secure NHS accommodation.”** But the most important figures are perhaps these: 96% of prisoners with a mental illness were released without any supported housing, and over three quarters were given no appointments with an outside carer. And less than 1% of people issued with a ‘community order’ were actually given any treatment for mental illness included in their sentence.** The Joint Committee on Human Rights report says that this worsens mental health considerably. All this makes the chances of re-offending much more likely.

Rethink have recently called for police officers to undergo mental health training. Perhaps the rest of the criminal justice system, and other pivotal services, like Job Centre Plus, should do this too. Surely it might be at least worth exploring whether there’s a link between the lack of police awareness (through no fault of the police) about mental illness, the mishandling of mental illness in the criminal justice system, the lack of understanding about mental illness within employment and the jobs market, and fact that so many people reach their (expensive) crisis point before they seek help, before they are offered help, or worse, before they even feel that help is something they are actually entitled to?

You can help Rethink campaign against cuts to mental health services here

*Centre for Mental Health, October 2010
**West Mercia Criminal Justice Board (figures relate to the UK as a whole)

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