Save money– treat mental illness

Given that those with mental illness are not the most sympathetic group nor are the rich and powerful with a lot of lobbying influence, it’s no surprise that treatment for mental illness is quick to get the ax whenever budget cuts are on the table.  We wouldn’t think of just denying treatment for someone with a serious liver disease (well, some of us would), but for someone with a serious brain disorder, all too often they are just out of luck.

Of course, the problem is that not just the individual suffers, society bears important costs as well (including the opportunity cost of not having that individual function as a productive citizen). Thus, it should not really be all that surprising that there’s a good cost/benefit case to be made for expanding treatment of the mentally ill (via research at NCSU!):

June 10, 2013 — Research from North Carolina State University, the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) and the University of South Florida shows that outpatient treatment of mental illness significantly reduces arrest rates for people with mental health problems and saves taxpayers money.

“This study shows that providing mental health care is not only in the best interest of people with mental illness, but in the best interests of society,” says Dr. Sarah Desmarais, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.

“Our research shows that people receiving medication were significantly less likely to be arrested,” Desmarais says. “Outpatient services also resulted in a decreased likelihood of arrest.”

The researchers also compared criminal justice costs with mental health treatment costs. Individuals who were arrested received less treatment and each cost the government approximately $95,000 during the study period. Individuals who were not arrested received more treatment and each cost the government approximately $68,000 during the study period.

“It costs about $10 less per day to provide treatment and prevent crime. That’s a good investment,” Desmarais says.

I’m sure the legislature will react to this finding and divert funds from locking up non-violent drug users to treating mental illness right away :-).  If only we lived in a sensible world.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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