Although mental illness affects one in five families and costs more than $140 billion annually in the United States, policymakers and individuals persist in the belief that mental disorders are not as "real" as other illnesses, according to a Utah senator.

"One in five families knows the devastating impact of mental illness. More than 40 million Americans are afflicted. Twelve percent of the children under 18 suffer mental illness," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "Those numbers are alarming. But so is the absence of treatment. Only one-fifth of those identified as mentally ill are receiving treatment. Mental illness is mainly treated outside the general health-care system. Less than one-third of the children in need of treatment . . . get it."Hatch, in Salt Lake City on Saturday to address the annual two-day conference of the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said insurance companies have subjected people with mental illness to a variety of barriers. Only 37 percent of policies offer inpatient coverage for mental illness.

The price of mental illness comes high, not only in terms of direct and indirect costs, but in lost productivity, failed relationships and stigma, Hatch said. In children, mental illness leads to not only lost productivity, but "intangible emotional barriers as well. The cost is staggering. The sad part is, it's treatable."

Advances in research of manic-depressive illness are paying off handsomely, he said, returning about $10 saved in treatment costs and productivity for every $1 spent. Those benefits could be reaped in other mental health areas.

"For the first time in history, we have a solid, scientific basis for treating and understanding (mental illness). But despite important gains, the underlying causes are still unknown, although we believe they're biological."

Most depressive illnesses, he said, seem to be treatable with a combination of good pharmaceuticals and therapy.

The most important key may be putting together the tools to recruit and retain top researchers, according to the senator, who has sponsored and supported several bills dealing with mental illness and research. Up-and-coming "young geniuses" shun government posts because they can start at higher salaries in private industry.

And government scientists at places like the Food and Drug Administration, which must approve drugs, and the National Institute of Health work in scattered buildings with outdated equipment and low salaries. "We need to really give them the best," Hatch said.

Of the billions spent on health care annually in the United States, research for physical illness gets 1.7 percent of the total. Mental health gets only 0.9 percent.

Hatch said that over the next decade he would "commit to support efforts to find the causes and cures of mental illness" and to help destigmatize the disease.