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The High Cost Of Untreated Mental Illness

Joe Mahoney
I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS
Medical staff in the emergency dept. confer at Denver Health, Nov. 2013. The department's director say the unit is seeing an unprecedented number of people landing in the emergency room with injuries or other health problems related to mental illness.

Untreated mental illness is a growing problem in Colorado – with one out of every four adults likely to experience some degree of mental illness in any given year. That has a high cost in Colorado, not only from a public health perspective but also from a financial standpoint.

Rocky Mountain PBS I-News spent eight months investigating this mounting crisis. Their series, Untreated: How Ignoring Mental Illness Costs Us All, shows the cost of mental illness at about $5.4 billion annually, which breaks down to roughly $1,000 for every person in the state.


"What we found is that most of these expenses are actually the cost of not treating mental illness," said I-News health reporter Kristin Jones. "When we looked at deliberate costs that the state is spending for mental health, it was about $730 million. So the bulk of these costs are in things like lost wages and preventable medical expenses."

In the first of the series, Jones reports:

Medical expenses associated with mental illness reached an estimated $2 billion in Colorado in 2013, according to 2005 figures from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, updated for growth and inflation. Lost wages cost even more. Workers with mental disorders earn $16,000 less per person, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. I-News estimates Colorado’s share of these lost wages at $2.9 billion.

The I-News investigation also found Coloradans with mental illnesses are more than five times as likely to be housed behind bars instead of in appropriate psychiatric treatment facilities.

Read More: Untreated Mental Health A Factor Behind Health Care 'Superutilizers'


Interview highlights

Who pays the $5.4 billion cost of untreated mental illness?

“In a sense, we’re all paying a bit of it. The lost wages, the $2.9 billion, that’s people with mental illnesses -- what they lose, what they could be earning and what they’re not. There are also costs that we didn’t tally, that are the costs that employers pay when people aren’t showing up to work, or they’re calling in sick or their family members are calling in sick. And then things like unnecessary emergency room visits, jail and prison costs -- we’re all paying for that as taxpayers.”

You found millions are spent annually on inmates. Why is this such a growing problem?

“There’s an increased demand for mental health services, and a lot of people aren’t reaching mental health care until they reach a crisis. In Colorado in the last five years, we’ve seen – according to court filings – a 35 percent jump in demand for involuntary mental health treatment… in that same period we’ve seen a 20 percent decline in the number of psychiatric beds. So a lot of the jails and emergency rooms are becoming a place of last resort.

We talked to a lot of county sheriffs who said they’ve seen more and more people in their jails who have mental illnesses. It’s a very, very expensive way to house people, and you can’t really call it treatment. A lot of times the people with the most serious mental illnesses are kept in solitary confinement for days or months or even years at a time.”

Will the new health care law provide any relief?

“The new health care law mandates that insurers pay for mental health treatment at the same level they’re paying for physical health care. So it’s designed to improve coverage for a lot of mental health treatment. However, it doesn’t do anything about the problems that many people have with access; in other words, there is still a shortage of psychiatrists in the state, there’s especially a shortage of child psychiatrists.”

What about legislative solutions to the crisis?

“I think there’s a lot of conversation about the importance of treating mental health issues. There’s a growing awareness -- and I think a lot of that has come out of the mass shootings in places like Aurora. And the governor has proposed a network of crisis centers that was supposed to be rolled out this year. Unfortunately that’s sort of mired in a lawsuit and on indefinite hold. So there’s a lot of conversation, and not a lot of very good short-term solutions.”

As host of KUNC's Colorado Edition, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. And because life is best when it's a balance of work and play, I love finding stories that highlight culture, music, the outdoors, and anything that makes Colorado such a great place to live.
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