Mental health needs to be more of a priority, with targets for waiting times and more protection for funding, says England’s chief medical officer.
Dame Sally Davies said there were signs funding was being cut at a time when the cost to the economy was rising.
Her annual report said mental illness led to the loss of 70 million working days last year – up 24% since 2009.
As well as calling for greater emphasis on mental illness in the NHS, she also said employers could play a role too.
She recommended they allowed people with mental health problems the option of flexible working to keep them in employment and maintaining regular contact during sickness leave.
Overall, mental illness costs the economy between £70bn and £100bn in lost productivity, benefit payments and absence from work.
In terms of NHS spending, it accounts for 13% of the budget despite causing 28% of illness.
Dame Sally said there were signs spending in real terms had been cut since 2011 – and called for this disinvestment to stop.
On top of that, she said, access to services needed to improve as three-quarters of people with a mental illness did not receive treatment.
She suggested targets for waiting times – as have been introduced in other areas of the health service such as A&E units and for routine surgery – could make a difference.
Specialist care is vital for some
Young people in particular needed better access to support, she said, half of adults with mental health problems develop them before the age of 15 and three-quarters by 18.
Dame Sally said the costs were “astounding” and NHS bosses needed to treat mental health “more like physical health”.
“Anyone with mental illness deserves good quality support at the right time,” she said.
“Underinvestment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically.”
It comes after a number of reports have highlighted how mental health services are being squeezed.
In January Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described mental health as the “poor cousin” in the health service.
Centre for Mental Health deputy chief executive Andy Bell said: “Better, faster and earlier help for mental health is vital to improve people’s lives and represents excellent value for money.
“Mental health and wellbeing should be a major priority in 21st Century public health.”
Care and Support Minister Norman Lamb said the CMO’s recommendations would be “considered carefully”, adding attempts were being made to make mental health more of a priority, including the possibility of introducing targets.
“I want to build a fairer society where mental health is treated with the same importance as physical health,” he said.
Report from BBC 9 September 2014