American taxpayers spend more than $100 billion a year on jails, homeless shelters and other services for their fellow countrymen who are mentally ill.
While that would barely fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for eight months, it's still a lot of money and it's spending that could be avoided if we just spent a little more on the front end to treat mental illness.
The Plain Dealer reported on Saturday that Ohioans are spending $6.5 billion for caring for those with untreated mental illness and that there are 500,000 Ohioans with "serious or potentially disabling mental illness."
And it's a problem that is getting worse. Local social service agencies are overburdened. The Plain Dealer reported that at Mental Health Services for Homeless Persons Inc. of Cleveland each of the agency's 10 workers carried an average caseload of 20 in 1993. Today they each carry 40 cases. The number of hospital and residential treatment beds has fallen over the past 35 years by more than 200 percent.
While addressing the problem would take early intervention that would not be cheap, it would be a lot less than what we are paying to deal with it later in life.
David Shearn, president of Mental Health America, advocates five changes to turn the present system around. They are, as reported in the Plain Dealer:
Develop a universal prevention program for elementary students that are as routine as childhood vaccinations
Screen schoolchildren's mental health and follow up with treatment just like eyesight and hearing tests
Expand health insurance plans to cover mental illness
Debunk mental health myths - such as depression and other disorders are character flaws or the result of a bad upbringing
Making sure patients get medication and treatment that has been proven to work.
It's time we as a society begin looking at mental illness the same way we look at cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Those afflicted are just as sick and the consequences of being deprived of appropriate treatment are just as tragic, if not more so.