Future burden of mental health in N.S. pegged at $1.4 billion: Report

WATCH: The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis estimates the cost of mental health issues to Nova Scotia will rise to $1.4 billion by 2041. Mental health experts say the province needs to be aggressive to get ahead of the costs. Julia Wong reports.

HALIFAX – The economic burden of mental illness will take a heavy toll on Nova Scotia’s healthcare system in the coming decades, according to analysts and experts who say the province needs to act proactively rather than defensively.

In a 2011 report commissioned for the Mental Health Commission, analysts projected mental illnesses, excluding dementia, will have a direct cost of $105.6 billion by 2041. The direct cost of mental health issues in 2011 was $42.3 billion.

Paul Smetanin, the report author and president of the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, said the direct cost of mental health issues, excluding dementia, in Nova Scotia in 2014 is $653 million. The number includes the cost of hospital visits, prescriptions and other services. The projected cost in 2041 is approximately $1.4 billion.

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Smetanin said the jump is due to an aging population along with the changing cost of healthcare.

The province estimates it will spend $146.955 million on mental health programs and services in 2015 to 2016. That funding is approximately $3.6 million more than last year. Mental health makes up 3.55 per cent of the overall health budget, which comes in at $4.137 billion. In comparison, mental health makes up 3.7 per cent of the health budget of New Brunswick, which has a smaller population than Nova Scotia.


With the budget for mental health substantially less than the cost of it to the healthcare system, Smetanin said Nova Scotia needs to plan ahead.

“It’s primarily about getting ahead of the development of the symptoms and the development of being able to deal with the early challenges of mental health, which is basically early identification and treatment,” he said.

Professor calls for action

Lynne Robinson, an associate professor in Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance, is an expert in mental health. She is also a licensed psychologist.

Robinson said the province is not spending enough money on mental health.

“What we really should be doing is starting to take action now because of that increased burden we can expect,” she said.

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“Mental illnesses cost us directly. They cost us in terms of longer treatment times for people with mental illnesses compared to other kinds of illnesses on average. They cost us in terms of loss productivity when you think of all the youth who are unable to advance in their education or their careers because they’re stalled.”

She said responding to mental health issues is complex but said the province should try to get ahead of the problem before it becomes too expensive.

“It’s a problem of unwillingness to look at and understand the evidence for the value of putting money in the back-end upstream as opposed to trying to let people go to emergency wards and not be treated,” she said.

“We often get caught in this cycle of ‘let me just spend on my immediate needs’ rather than looking to save money down the road. It’s going to be painful but long term, it’s going to pay off.”

The Gordon Foundation is a non-profit organization that supports programs dealing with the mental health and well-being of children and youth.

President Paula Danyluk said she sees a commitment from the government to help people with mental health issues, but said the demand is greater than supply.

“It would be wonderful to see more funding, more training for people and a way for us all to communicate together,” she said.

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“I think the government has started to take the first initiatives but I think it’s just the first baby steps. They’re putting some things in place but this is a growing process.”

Danyluk said the government needs to be aggressive when it comes to helping those with mental health issues.

“If we can get to a place where things are proactive so they’re not becoming so critical and we’re able to get a better handle on them, I think that society in general will be much better off. We will have lots of citizens in Nova Scotia who will be much healthier and happier.”

Preparing for the future

When asked whether the province should be funding mental health programs more to offset costs down the road, Health Minister Leo Glavine said a health services review is underway to see what the government should be doing where.

He did not respond directly to questions about whether more funding is a possibility.

“What is it, that one, two, three, that we need to implement and make the investment for better outcomes. We know the whole mental health area in my view, will be some of the biggest issues of medicine in the coming decades,” he said.

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“This is why I want provincial health authority to be able to tell our government and successive government what more do we need to be doing.”

Smetanin said the province needs to act now to prepare for what is to come in 2041.

“It takes time – time to change culture and to change the language. It’s also required to be able to get the right resources to the table,” he said.

“If we wait 10, 15, 20 years out from 2041, there’s this question of do we have a young generation that’s coming through the medical schools that are equipped with knowledge around mental health issues? Do we have the occupational workers that are coming through to deal with mental health issues in the labour force?”

“The action is now. Mental health is costing the healthcare system and the community an incredible amount of money right now so it’s not necessarily preparing for 2041 [that’s important], it’s actually addressing the issue today.”

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