|The overall burden of mental illness is more than 1.5 times that of all cancers and seven times that of all infectious diseases, according to a new report. (Fotolia) |
Mental illness poses a greater burden on society than every type of cancer combined, a new Canadian report has found.
The overall burden of mental illness is more than 1.5 times that of all cancers and seven times that of all infectious diseases, according to a report from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and Public Heath Ontario.
The findings came as a shock to lead author Sujitha Ratnasingham, an ICES epidemiologist who had never worked in mental health before, but was brought onto the project because of her previous work calculating the burden of cancer and infectious diseases.
The researchers measured the burden of mental illness the same way as they did other diseases — by looking at how many new cases appear each year, how long the disease lasts, how it affects a person's life and how often it contributes to an early death. They found mental illness is very widespread and people tend to develop it at a young age and suffer from it for a long time.
What's more, it often manifests during major life transitions like graduating high school, going to college and university, entering the workforce or getting married. That makes it hard for people to maintain relationships, pursue education and hold down a job.
The burden is probably even greater than the study suggests because certain illnesses, like autism and dementia, weren't included.
As well, when it comes to calculating deaths, Ratnasingham admitted it was more complicated than with other medical conditions where the cause and effect is obvious. Things like suicide and deaths stemming from an unhealthy lifestyle associated with mental illness weren't counted, even though they happen all the time.
Instead, they counted things like liver cirrhosis and liver cancer attributable to alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse accounted for 88% of all deaths attributed to mental illness and 91% of years lost due to early death.
The five conditions found to have the greatest burdens are depression, bipolar disorder, alcohol use disorders, social phobia and schizophrenia.
Ratnasingham hopes the findings will spark changes in attitudes and policy. She said there are no specific protocols in Ontario on how to deal with mental health. As a result, some hospitals do better work than others.
What's more, she says people need to be more aware of the scope of the problem.
"We're hoping that this increases awareness of the burden of these mental health issues and addictions," she said. "If you're feeling depressed — you're feeling blue, as we often just say — for a long period of time where it's affecting your social life or your work life, maybe it's time to seek help."
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