Citing new statistics from Germany's state pension scheme Deutsche Rentenversicherung (DRV), the newspaper said 71,000 people received early benefits due to a psychiatric diagnosis, up from 64,500 in 2009. The numbers have been increasing steadily over the last ten years, the newspaper reported.
Under German law, people who take their pension before the legal retirement age of 65 get hit with penalties unless a doctor certifies them as disabled, and pension regulators agree to the diagnosis. About 43 percent of applications are rejected.
Mental illness has become the most common reason Germans take involuntary retirement, representing roughly 40 percent of the 180,000 retirees each year, according to the statistics. That places mental illness just in front of skeletal and muscular conditions and heart and circulatory diseases.
Sufferers also tend to be younger than those with physical conditions. The average age of retirees for those with psychiatric illnesses is 48.3 years old versus just over 50 for others.
But the increase may not be as alarming as it first appears, experts have suggested. While it could point to an increase in workplace stress, it more likely means that the stigma about conditions like depression or anxiety disorders is being eroded.
Doctors are more willing to accept psychiatric diagnoses, said Axel Reimann, who sits on DRV's board of directors. He told the Süddeutsche that modern doctors look for psychological reasons for troubles such as back pain, whereas in the past they would have attributed pain purely to physiological issues.
He said mental illness is being “more openly discussed, and for that reason doctors are willing to diagnose more mental causes of suffering.”
Christiane Korsukéwitz, a senior physician at DRV, said patients too are more open to such diagnoses.
“They are willing, for example, to accept the diagnosis of depression,” she told the Süddeutsche.
The DRV emphasized that many people with mental illnesses are able to return to work after a period of rehabilitation. Last year 177,000 Germans received special benefits from the organization to recover from their psychiatric conditions. More than 80 percent were able to go back to work after treatment, according to the statistics.