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Promoting mental health saves money

Six charities have highlighted the importance of treating mental illness as early as possible.  They’re right.  But promoting mental health is even more cost effective.

However you look at it, promoting the mental health and resilience of young children makes sense.  It helps children to cope with difficulties, gives them skills for life, improves the atmosphere in schools, boosts academic achievement, reduces bullying and makes parenting easier.

Yet when times are tough such obvious human benefits may not be enough.  National and local governments want to see economic benefits too.  When budgets are being cut right, left and centre, why should mental health promotion be spared?

This issue has been in the news recently in England.  First came a report saying that problems resulting from poor mental health are costing the city of London a staggering £26 billion a year, mainly in care costs and lost productivity. 

One of the report’s authors, Prof Martin Knapp of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), was quoted as saying: “This is far too high a price to the city, and much of it is because we are not addressing individual and social needs properly.  The costs will continue to rise if we do nothing.”

Then six leading mental health charities warned against cutting early intervention schemes to help young patients with mental illness.  It’s a false economy, they said. 

The Mental Health Foundation, Rethink Mental Illness, Mind, the NHS Confederation Mental Health Network and the Centre for Mental Health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists emphasised that early intervention schemes can prevent patients from becoming more ill, keep them out of hospital and in work, and reduce suicide rates. 

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, said such programmes were very good value for money.

"They save the National Health Service £9 and the wider economy another £9 for every £1 invested in them," he said.

Such figures are striking – but they tell only half the story. 

Three years ago, Prof Knapp and LSE colleagues produced a report for the Department of Health, looking this time not at the costs of mental illness but at the economic benefits of promoting mental health.

They examined 15 evidence-based interventions for promoting mental health and preventing mental illness, and concluded that ‘even though the economic modelling is based on conservative assumptions, many interventions are seen to be outstandingly good value for money.’

What really impressed us at Partnership for Children was that by far the most cost-effective of the 15 interventions studied were social and emotional learning programmes for children, with a return on investment of £84 for each £1 spent.

Look more closely and the findings are even more encouraging.  The report assumed that an intervention happens at the age of ten, whereas our Zippy’s Friends programme helps children as young as five and six.  The report assumed an intervention cost per child of £132 per year, but in many countries the cost of delivering Zippy’s Friends is much, much lower.

The report’s conclusion was unequivocal: ‘There is a strong case that school-based social and emotional learning programmes are cost-saving for the public sector.’

So while cutting early invention schemes to treat mental illness may be a false economy, not investing in programmes to promote mental health makes no sense at all.

Mental health promotion and mental illness prevention: The economic case (April 2011)

18 March 2014