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Alcohol, Mental Problems Rife in U.S. Workforce

Study finds 25% have a substance or mental disorder each year

MONDAY, July 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Think your co-worker is having problems?

You might be right: A new report finds 25 percent of the U.S. workforce experiences at least one mental or substance abuse disorder each year.

The most common mental disorders among workers aged 18 to 54 are alcohol abuse or dependence (9 percent), major depression (8 percent), and social phobia (7 percent), says the report.

Mental illness and addictions cost employers billions of dollars and take a staggering emotional and financial toll on workers and their families.

"The rates are extremely high," says Robin Hertz, study author and a senior director of population studies at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group. "As a nation, we have to be more attentive to these types of problems ... There is a mythology out there that if you are at work you are healthy. That is not really true."

The report found companies pay more than $17 billion a year in "unproductive" wages to workers with mental disorders. Of that, about $5 billion goes to pay workers who miss workdays because of their substance abuse; about $12 billion is lost because productivity declines due to the illness.

Mental illness and substance abuse are also hurting the person with the illness financially. Men and women with mental disorders earn on average 22 percent less than people without mental disorders.

The study used data from the National Comorbidity Survey and the National Mortality Followback Survey, which are conducted by academic and government researchers.

Dealing with mental illness and substance abuse disorders is especially difficult because people often try to hide their problem or aren't aware treatment is available, Hertz says.

The study found of the 28 million workers who have a mental disorder, 66 percent had never been diagnosed. Just 14 percent of workers with mental disorders had been treated in the prior year.

"It tells me people aren't seeking treatment. It's also possible when they go to a health-care provider, there is a lack of attention to their problem," Hertz says. "Many people don't realize they can be helped. Or perhaps it's a matter of stigma."

Mary Graham, senior policy advisor for the National Mental Health Association, said she's not surprised by the findings.

"We suspected the rates were high, but we didn't have any hard data," she says. "I'm very glad it's in print."

One reason the rate could be so high is that better treatment for mental disorders lets people who otherwise might not be able to get or hold a job stay in the workforce.

However, the statistics show not nearly enough of people are getting the treatment they need. Graham's organization advocates better insurance coverage for mental health disorders and better education of primary-care doctors to spot it.

"Stigma is still a big obstacle," Graham says. "There is still a lot of misperception and shame around having a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder. As a result, people hide it and don't seek care."

Hertz recommends employers establish confidential screenings and employee-assistance programs at work, and make sure workers know they are available and private.

"It makes sense to do what we can to optimize the health of the workforce," Hertz says. "It's good for the employer, and it's really good for the employee."

What To Do

For a list of the symptoms of common mental illnesses, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. For information about getting treatment for mental health disorders or substance abuse problems, try the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or the National Mental Health Association.

SOURCES: Robin Hertz, Ph.D., senior director, population studies, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group, New York City; Mary Graham, senior policy advisor, National Mental Health Association, Alexandria, Va.; Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group study
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