The Tucson Rampage Underscores the High Costs of Mental Illness

Loughner's Rampage Underscores the High Costs of Mental Illness
Loughner's Rampage Underscores the High Costs of Mental Illness

Jared Lee Loughner, the disturbed young man charged in this weekend's massacre in Tuscon that left six dead, including a 9-year-old girl, and 14 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), highlights the physical dangers that individuals with untreated mental illness pose to society. But the financial costs of mental illness are high, too.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that the total costs associated with serious mental illnesses -- debilitating disorders that affect about 6% of the U.S. adult population -- to be in excess of $300 billion annually. That figure comes from 2002 data, so it's very likely a lot higher now. Antipsychotic drugs have shifted from being a niche product to the top-selling pharmaceutical class in the U.S., generating revenue of about $14.6 billion annually, according to The New York Times. About $11 billion was spent on antidepressants in 2008.

To put it all in perspective, the costs of mental illness easily exceed the latest yearly revenues of Exxon Mobil (XOM) ( $275.66 billion), General Electric (GE) ($155.77 billion), Apple (AAPL) ($65.66 billion) or Goldman Sachs (GS) ($51.66 billion).

"The Situation Is Getting Worse"

The Tucson shootings came at a time when mental health programs from state and local governments are facing unprecedented fiscal pressures. This is especially true considering the huge amount of money spent on prisons, where the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that 24% of inmates have serious mental illnesses. Florida alone spends $250 million annually housing 1,700 individuals charged with crimes but deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial.

"The situation is getting worse," says Katrina Gay, NAMI's director of communications, adding that the organization is mindful of the need to remind the public not to look at an unusual case like Loughner's and paint all mentally ill people with the same broad brush. "Most people with mental illness are not violent," she says. "Acts of violence do occur, but they are unusual."

Mental illness for most people is a manageable condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure. But, as with other chronic health issues, when left untreated, symptoms get worse. And that makes cuts in funding so worrisome. It's an acute issue for the parents of 20,000 students in California, where a lawsuit is seeking to restore $133 million in funding to a program to provide education-related mental health services, according to the Los Angeles Times. Likewise in Texas, law enforcement officials are worried about proposed cuts to the state's mental health budget.

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And Arizona, site of this weekend's tragedy, made deep cuts to its mental health budget for 2010 that affected 28,000 patients: The state slashed "all support services for non-Medicaid behavioral health patients and took away coverage for most name-brand drugs," according to the TV and radio news program Democracy Now!

Of course, all the mental health services -- and spending -- in the world might not have stopped Loughner. Though it has been reported that his local community college suspended him pending a mental health clearance, his parents -- also described as loners -- failed to get him the help he so desperately needed. And he purchased his handgun legally in Arizona, home to the nation's loosest gun laws. But it's worth repeating: The Loughner case is the exception rather than the rule. When treatment is made available, most people with mental illness can be helped.

Bloomberg News reports that sales of Glock pistols -- the type of weapon Loughner used -- are surging in Arizona in the aftermath of the shooting. Surely, addressing the needs of the mentally ill is a better response than buying more guns.

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