Mental health and substance abuse disorders are the leading cause of non-fatal illness around the world

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Published on SBS website.  Mental health and substance abuse disorders are taking an alarming toll on the health system, a new report says.

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Mental health and substance abuse disorders are taking an alarming toll on the health system, a new report says.   The study, published on The Lancet today, found that these conditions are the leading cause of non-fatal illness around the world.   The data was taken from 187 countries taking into account more than 200 diseases.

Professor Harvey Whiteford from the University of Queensland led the project, and says the findings are a wake-up call to Australian health officials.

“Twenty-three per cent of all health-related disability in Australia is due to mental and substance abuse disorders,” said Professor Whiteford.     “This is a significant contributor to the health burden, but the amount we spend on mental health services is way lower than that”.   In fact, the study found mental health and substance abuse disorders cause more ill health globally than conditions like diabetes, stroke or infectious diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis combined.

The study also found that the burden on the health system from the disorders has risen 40 per cent in the last 20 years.   Worldwide, Australia ranked similarly to comparable nations like New Zealand, the UK, or the USA.   Within Australia “refugee groups have a higher prevalence of mental health problems coming to Australia from countries that have been affected by war or civil conflict,” says Professor Whiteford.   But the health system isn’t the only sector being affected. “Several billion dollars are estimated to be lost annually from lost productivity just from depression alone,” Professor Whiteford added.   While the figures are startling for many Australians, recovering alcoholic John McMillan says he’s not surprised.   He’s been dry for five years but has struggled with alcoholism for decades.   His problem stems from attempts to self-medicate after a relationship broke down in his mid-20s.

“I didn’t know how to deal with the grief and the pain and the fear and the only way I knew how to alleviate those feelings, unbeknownst to me it was only going to make it worse, was to drink.”   Doctors say the impact of these disorders can be mitigated if they are picked up earlier.

Psychiatrist Dr Ben Teoh says people need to be encouraged to see their GP if they think there’s a problem.

“We need to do a lot more work about educating the public about presenting to the GPs if they have any problems related to mental issues.”   John McMillan says he was reluctant to get help in the early stages of his alcoholism because of the stigma attached to the disorder.

“I really took on board what others were saying about ‘why can’t you just stop’, ‘you’re weak willed’ or ‘there’s something wrong with you’ and deep down inside I was very saddened by that but at the same time it kept me drinking,” he told SBS.   Many of the cases that don’t get picked up early, end up in rehabilitation clinics.

Tracey Hammet from Sydney’s South Pacific Private Hospital says the condition can hurt far more people than just the sufferer.

“Generally when there is a person with a mental illness or an addiction, there are a lot of issues going on in that family and everybody is suffering one way or another”.   John McMillan can relate to that.

“I’ve been blessed to have a very, very, understanding family, although they were directly affected by my behaviour.”

Anyone who feels they need help but is reluctant to see a doctor is encouraged to contact organisations like the Black Dog Foundation or Beyond Blue.

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