The burden of mental illness and addictions is more than 1.5 times that of all cancers, a new report suggests.

Wednesday's report, called Opening Eyes, Opening Minds, concluded that mental illness and addictions are often misunderstood, misdiagnosed and ignored, including in the health care system.

"People can often dismiss mental illnesses as, 'Oh, that person is just feeling a little blue,'" said Sujitha Ratnasingham, lead author of the report by the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences and Public Health Ontario.

"But they don't fully understand the impact it has on their life as a whole, their work, their social interactions, their family."

Ratnasingham and her co-authors calculated the burden of some mental illnesses and addictions based on early deaths as well as their impact on quality of life.

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Many mental illnesses start in young adulthood, which contributes to their burden. (Courtesy ICES)

Since many mental illnesses manifest between the ages of 18 to 24, people may experience them over a long period with significant impact on social connections, educational goals and participation in the workforce, the report noted.

"If we are able to help people when they do have the early onset, we could prevent a lot of this burden," Ratnasingham said.

Getting professional help

People may recover but relapses are also common, she added.

Asante Haughton, 27, of Toronto started feeling hopeless in his teens.

"Every day would just drag on," he recalled.

Haughton found his love of hip hop was therapeutic, and he started writing rap songs to seek relief temporarily.

"Even at your most hopeless point, there are people who care about you and you may not feel like they do care about you, but if people are sticking around you, they probably do," he advised other people feeling the same way.

Haughton approached his family doctor for help in his early 20s, saw a counsellor, and slowly started to feel better with professional help and anxiety medication when needed. He now talks to students aiming to stop the stigma surrounding mental health.

In Ontario, mental illness and addiction contributed to more than 600,000 health-adjusted life-years, a measure that incorporates both premature death and reduced functioning or suboptimal states of health associated with disease or injury.

The five conditions that had the highest burden were:

  • Depression.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Alcohol use disorders.
  • Social phobia.
  • Schizophrenia.

Depression had the highest overall burden, accounting for a third, the report's authors said.

Early detection key

In general, the burden declined with increasing age.

Bipolar disorder had the greatest impact among those aged 35 to 44.

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Depression was the most common mental illness studied, said Sujitha Ratnasingham. (CBC)

Some cancers and infectious diseases may be more severe in terms of mortality rates, the authors said.

But the burden of mental illness and addiction in the province is more than 1.5 times that of cancer and seven times that of all infectious diseases when reduced functioning is considered.

Alcohol-related disorders were the exception, with those deaths accounting for 25 per cent of the burden of illness.

The authors recommended that early detection and timely intervention are critical, adding that effective treatments exist but only a small proportion of those affected receive them.

The report's figures are important because they reflect the stark reality that people in the field see, said Prof. Zul Merali, president and CEO of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research.

The illnesses aren't suddenly popping up but previously they tended to be ignored or misdiagnosed, Merali said. An increase in stressors, such as not getting enough rest, could also be contributing, he said.

The Ontario figures are nationally representative, ICES said.

The authors did not consider co-morbidity, or suffering from more than one chronic condition at once.

Suicides and the impact of the illness on others, such as family members, were also excluded.

The researchers also relied in part on U.S. data.

Release of the report coincides with World Mental Health Day.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe