Imagine going to work and being unable to concentrate because of hallucinations or severe mood swings. Trying as hard as possible to focus, instead you’re distracted from completing even simple tasks.
Now you know how more than 200 million people feel as they struggle to manage severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Both disorders have striking symptoms, such as mood changes that swing from depression to mania, hallucinations (hearing voices) and delusions (strikingly unusual ideas). However, the biggest problem for both society and people with these conditions is their inability to perform daily activities, leading to high rates of unemployment and dependent living and social difficulties.
For example, more than nine out of 10 veterans with schizophrenia live below the poverty line. And 80 percent of people with schizophrenia and 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder are unable to perform everyday tasks, even when they are not having symptoms like the ones described above.
The inability to work and function is a result of severe mental illness, not a sign of laziness or other personal deficiencies. The illness is costing patients their livelihood, with costs trickling down to family, friends and neighbors. More than $100 billion is spent annually on treating mental illness and its symptoms, but that number is more than doubled when indirect costs, such as unemployment and caregiver expenses, are factored into the equation.
The causes of disability, while complicated, are treatable in at least half of those who take their medication. In addition, structured employment interventions can help some patients obtain full-time work. Adding cognitive training essentially doubles the success rate.
However, other than for veterans, these cognitive training and work intervention programs are not available in South Florida. Providing treatments and programming that improve functioning has the potential to be extremely cost effective for society. These programs need to become a priority for everyone in South Florida, whether one is a patient, caregiver or average citizen.
We could curb the massive costs associated with severe mental illness while reducing the suffering of those in the throes of their medical condition. It’s a prospect that benefits us all and it is within our reach, because it is taking place in other parts of the country.
Philip Harvey, Ph.D., is a psychologist and director of the Division of Psychology at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. To learn more about UHealth’s clinical services, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.