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Mental illness sends disability claims rocketing

Mental illness is taking its toll on the taxpayer (www.newtreatments.org) Mental illness is taking its toll on the taxpayer (www.newtreatments.org)

The number of people claiming disability benefit for mental health problems has tripled in Switzerland over the past ten years, with over 70,000 claimants in 2002.

This content was published on August 4, 2003 - 08:55

There are fears that the explosion in disability handouts could cripple the state’s invalidity insurance fund.

The number of people receiving disability benefit – who are deemed incapable of working – has almost doubled since 1990, from 130,000 to 220,000.

Until recently, the main causes of disability were physical illness, accidents or congenital disabilities. But there has recently been a sharp rise in mental health problems, such as depression, neuroses, insomnia and panic attacks.

“A third of those who qualify for disability benefit are claiming for mental health reasons,” says Brigitte Breitenmoser, deputy director of the Federal Social Insurance Office.

Recent studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) show that this is an international trend.

Younger claimants

In 1990, 3.1 per cent of the active population received disability benefit. The overall figure has risen to 4.9 per cent, though the percentage varies considerably depending on age and gender.

For example, the figure for men over 60 is as high as 20 per cent.

However, there has also been a particularly sharp increase in people aged 35 to 45 and a spate of new cases among young people under 20.

The increase poses a burden on state coffers, as it is uncommon for someone who has been granted disability benefit to return to work. In 2002, for example, 49,700 cases were reviewed, but benefit was withdrawn only in 1,700 cases.

There are also fears about the invalidity scheme’s finances, which posted a deficit of SFr1 billion in 2002.

Bogus claimants?

The issue is now being bitterly debated among politicians.

Christoph Blocher of the rightwing Swiss Peoples’ Party believes the system is being abused by bogus claimants, though other parties refute this claim.

In German-speaking Switzerland, consultations by Pro Mente Sana, a charity which supports people suffering from mental health disorders, increased by 63 per cent between 1997 and 2002.

And it is estimated that only half of those suffering from depression are brave enough to seek treatment.

“Mental health problems are no longer a taboo subject, as they were 20 or 30 years ago,” says Ivars Udris, a psychologist at the Federal Institute of Technology of Zurich.

“Nowadays, people are more aware of the issues which means that most cases are coming to the surface.”

Work pressure

Mental health organisations say the rise in the number of cases is partly due to greater pressure at work, with more lay-offs, bankruptcies, restructuring operations and more emphasis on efficiency and productivity.

The concept of job security has also gone out of the window, even within the old safe haven sectors, such as the civil service and the former state-owned companies such as the national carrier, Swissair (now Swiss).

“Not everyone has been able to come to terms with this insecurity”, explains Udris.

“Many have gone under and failed to find a foothold to keep them in the world of work and they’ve gone straight from employment to disability, without even experiencing unemployment.”

Disillusionment

“The fact is that our society promises a great deal,” adds Breitenmoser. “Then you realise that not everything can be had so easily and disillusionment sets in, particularly among young people.”

“If the labour market continues [to be unstable], mental health problems are likely to go on increasing.”

swissinfo, Marzio Pescia

Key facts

The number of people claiming disability benefit has doubled since 1990, from 130,000 to 220,000.
The percentage of disability claimants among the active population has grown from 3.1 per cent to 4.9 per cent.
There has been a particularly sharp rise in claims from people aged between 35 to 45 years.

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In Brief

Mental problems such as depression, neuroses, insomnia and panic attacks have risen sharply among the Swiss, conforming to an international trend.
The Federal Social Insurance Office says a third of disability claims are for mental health problems.
Swiss politicians are in disagreement over how to deal with the surge in claims, with some arguing many of the claims are bogus.
Mental health organisations claim one of the reasons for the rise in mental health problems is growing pressure in the workplace.

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