Bottom line on young men’s mental health shows high cost of inaction

Young men with mental health problems take an average of 9.5 extra days off work each year. PixieClipx

Mental illness in young men costs the Australian economy $3.27bn a year in lost productivity, according to a report released today by the Inspire Foundation and Ernst & Young.

The report, titled Counting the Cost: The Impact of Young Men’s Mental Health on the Australian Economy, shows the federal government pays almost a third (31%) of this bill through direct health and welfare costs.

Employers, on the other hand, lose more than 9 million days a year to young men with mental illness, who take an average of 9.5 additional days off work each year.

Mental health policy consultant and University of Sydney Adjunct Associate Professor John Mendoza was a member of the report’s advisory panel. He explains the findings below.

The economic modelling was undertaken by Ernst & Young and I think it’s fair to say the approach they took was a very conservative one because they wanted to be sure that any data they were building the model on was robust and recent.

What it showed was that mental illness among young men aged 13 to 25 costs the Australian economy nearly $3.3bn in lost productivity. This equates to $387,000 per hour, or the price of a house. The impact is borne by governments, businesses and those individuals and their families.

Why did the report focus on men?

Men of all age groups use health and community services at lower rates than women. We know that even for services like MensLine Australia, which is specifically a mens’ telephone service line, about 80% of callers every year are women, calling on behalf of, or because of concern about, their male partner or family member.

We wanted to focus on young men because they have extraordinarily low levels of service use.

While mental health problems are common, with about 28% of men in this group having an alcohol or another drug problem, only about 13% of those with a clinical need actually accessed any care, let alone good care.

These are the years when men complete schooling, move onto higher education and begin their careers. And it’s in these key early adult years that mental health problems start to manifest.

It’s clear that we have to redesign the way we deliver those services. And what we’ve seen from the earlier research by Inspire is that we need to look at the workplace as a key setting for engaging men in health service access. We’ve got to make it much more attractive to get help.

What can employers do to reduce the burden of mental illness among young men?

Employers can take a lead role in terms of de-stigmatising mental illness and communicate that it’s okay to put your hand up if you’ve got problems. There’s a strong belief among men that if they signal to their employer that they’re having problems coping with their demands at work or with relationships, then they’re going to put their career at risk. So they don’t do anything about it.

Thomas Weidenhaupt

As a consequence of not acting in the early years, some men face a lifetime of disconnection from work, problems in relationships, misuse of alcohol and other drugs, and so on.

The purpose of the report is really to highlight the loss of opportunity from inaction.

Where is the line between employees’ right to confidentiality and the employer asking if they need assistance?

Employees are under no obligation to disclose their mental illness to their employers. But if we can create a workplace environment where it’s okay to say, “hey look, I’m having some problems here; I’m not travelling too well”, and people can access information, services, referral pathways to assistance, this could result in many more men getting help.

We’re seeing employers change from the old the attitudes of “suck it up, princess” to “it’s okay to say that you’re not coping”.

The Commonwealth government has committed to programs in the past that deal with this issue and encourage more mentally ill people to break into the workforce. Have these programs made any progress?

Not yet. We really haven’t moved much at all in terms of employment rate for people with mental illness. We have, however, dramatically improved our employment rates for people with physical disabilities over the past couple of decades.

I think the lack of progress shows the need for broad community destigmatisation of mental illness. We’ve done some work around this with depression and beyondblue but we need to do much more, particularly for younger men. We need to learn how to recognise the signs and the symptoms of mental illness, and ensure we’ve got services available that are attractive, affordable and effective.

Is there enough in the mental health budget to begin making progress in these areas?

No, we’re still way way off in terms of the spectrum of services that are needed. We don’t have enough mental health services; nor are they in the right places.

If you look at the mining boom, for instance, many men are alone for long periods of time. They’re away from family and natural supports, and are very much at risk of developing mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug problems. And yet, where are the services?

Mining companies have a duty of care, first and foremost as a legal obligation, to ensure they’re providing affordable, accessible and attractive services for the men that they’re housing in these large mining camps.

We need to ensure we’ve got prevention and intervention programs on the ground and operating.