Is There A Mental Health Crisis?

Depression Bipolar and schizophrenia are being reported everywhere

January 30, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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Blame it on the economic downturn, genetic or biological issues - whatever the causes, Americans are more depressed than ever before.

According to a new government report, nearly 46 million American adults have experienced some form of mental illness in the past year - that is one in five people. And the prevalence of mental health issues is higher among younger adults.

For people in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25, the rate of mental illness was nearly twice as high (nearly 30 percent) than for people aged 50 and older, for whom just over 14 percent experienced mental illnesses. Also, more women than men suffer psychological difficulties (23 percent compared to 16.8 percent).

The gender difference is consistent among studies, but researchers are not sure if there is actually a higher prevalence of mental illness among women, or they are simply more likely to admit it and to seek help.

Mental Illness Findings

These most recent figures were provided by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which defines mental illness as having a mental, behavioral or emotional problem based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard reference for mental illness.

According to SAMHSA, around 11.4 million American adults suffered from a serious mental illness in the past year.

"We all know people who have had a depression or an anxiety disorder, maybe something more serious like a bipolar disorder, but this is a pretty big number," said Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA's Office of Applied Studies. Delaney added that this is only the second year that these findings on mental health have been done as a separate report, so there was not yet enough data to identify a trend.

He also cautions that while factors such as the recession may be seen as a factor, the reasons why people suffer from mental illness cannot be easily summed up. "These conditions are multifactorial - there are genetic issues, there are biological issues, there are social issues and also personal issuers."

Other findings in the report include:

  • About 39 percent of those with a mental illness received mental health services.
  • Nearly 61 percent of those with severe mental illness received services.
  • 8.7 million Americans had suicidal thoughts in the last year.
  • 2.5 million made plans to kill themselves.
  • 1.1 million attempted suicide.
  • People who abuse drugs or alcohol had higher rates of mental illness than others (20 percent vs. about 6 percent).
  • One-fourth of those with serious mental illness were substance abusers.
  • 1.9 million 12- to 17-year-olds had a major depression in the past year.
  • Teens suffering depression were twice as likely to have a drug problem than teens who did not have a major depression (roughly 37 percent vs. 18 percent).

Delaney said that while some people who know they have a mental health problem aren't interested in getting care, he also cited lack of medical insurance as the main reason why many people are not receiving treatment.

Such large numbers of mental illness take not only a human toll, but an economic one as well. Mental illness accounts for more disability than any other illness in developed countries like the U.S., according to the World Health Organization, and the costs associated with it in this country totaled around $300 billion in 2002.

“Mental illness is not an isolated public health problem," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. "Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity often co-exist with mental illness and treatment of the mental illness can reduce the effects of these disorders. People, families and communities will benefit from increased access to mental health services.”

Help and Resources

"These statistics reveal the scope of the problem of emotional disorder in our society, but there is some good news," says Dr. Barbara Long, a psychiatrist in Atlanta. "Having emotional problems is no longer the social stigma that it has been in the past. Stress is a universal experience, and people vary in their capacity to handle it. Almost everyone either has wrestled with depression or anxiety or another problem or has known a family member or friend who has."

Dr. Long says that although there have been significant budgetary constraints on medical services, including mental health, there are resources available. She suggests the following sources as potential places to seek help for mental health needs:

  • Schools may have counseling available for students who need help. 
  • Human Resources Departments of companies can offer counseling for employees struggling with emotional symptoms. 
  • Local teaching hospitals often run clinics that serve the community and may offer a sliding scale fee. 
  • Religious organizations may provide clergy counseling or make an appropriate referral. 
  • Foundations offer programs targeted to different groups or needs. 
  • Support groups based on the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous meet different needs.  

Emotions Anonymous is such a group, adds Dr. Long. The Emotions Anonymous fellowship is composed of people who come together in weekly meetings for the purpose of working toward recovery from emotional difficulties. EA members are from many walks of life and are of diverse ages, economic status, social and educational backgrounds. The only requirement for membership is a desire to become well emotionally.

When it comes to medication, Dr. Long has some advice. "Some people cannot afford the beneficial medications that they need. Find out if you qualify for free medications by contacting the pharmaceutical manufacturer."

Lastly, in the era of the Internet, there are medically-informed sources of information, blogs, and other resources for support and help. "There is no need to feel alone and isolated," Dr. Long says. "Reach out. You can get on the computer at your public library and start to look." She cautions that while many Internet sites can be useful, users should be cautious about relying on non-medically based information or sources that may be questionable. If in doubt, consult your physician. 

"We know with the appropriate use of medication and with good treatment people can recover and go on to lead very healthy and productive lives," adds Delany.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 26, 2012
Last Updated:
February 8, 2012