There is always a bristled excitement among Pioneer staff and supporters before the topic of the annual Better Government Competition is announced. The organization seems to have a knack for selecting the most critical public policy issues. When the topic of “Improving Mental Health” was chosen, the importance resonated immediately. It may be more relevant than at any other point in our nation’s history. Every area of core government function is affected by the status of mental health. Our failure to find answers and reduce inefficiencies costs the Commonwealth innocent lives and millions of dollars each year.
In our schools, 50 percent of students over the age of 14 who suffer from a mental illness end up dropping out. More than two-thirds of schools report the need for better mental health services. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people age 15-24, with an estimated 90 percent of suicides resulting from an underlying mental illness.
In our prisons, guards have been forced to act as doctors. An estimated 20 percent of the total prison population in Massachusetts is suffering from a mental illness. The Massachusetts Sheriffs Association estimates 42 percent of inmates in county jails have some form of mental illness.
In our neighborhoods, while much of the country has seen a decrease in homelessness, Massachusetts’ homeless population has increased by 25 percent. This is driven in part by mental illness, which is considered the third leading cause of homelessness among adults. Homeless citizens suffer from mental illness at four times the rate of the non-homeless population.
Among our soldiers, veterans make up a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population with an estimated 50,000 veterans living on the street. Approximately 45 percent suffer from a mental illness. The percentage of veterans committing suicide represents an even more stark imbalance, as they are only 1 percent of the total population, but 20 percent of all suicides.
In total, around 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental health issue, across every age group. The failures to properly identify, diagnose, and support this population cost an estimated $193.2 billion in lost earnings each year.
The mission of Pioneer Institute states that the organization will seek “to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts.” Few issues will yield a greater return on investment than improving our mental health systems. In the coming weeks, we will be exploring each of these problem areas with in-depth blog posts, in hopes of soliciting your help. Great ideas will ensure that the 25th Annual Better Government Competition has the biggest impact ever.