Rates of Mental Illness in America are Persistently High

Four percent of Americans had thoughts of suicide in the past year.

Twenty percent of American adults say they had a mental health condition in the past year. (Photo: Simone Becchetti/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Twenty percent of American adults—more than 45 million—experienced a mental illness in the past year, according to new data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The numbers, which are from a 2011 survey, show no changes in the persistence of mental illness in America.

Not surprisingly, women reported more mental illness than men. But contrary to the idea that older people are most likely to become depressed, the survey found the highest rate of psychological problems in people ages 18 to 25.

The survey of 65,750 people found almost 30 percent of young adults reported mental illness compared to about 14 percent among people ages 50 and older.

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“Although mental illness remains a serious public health issue, increasingly we know that people who experience it can be successfully treated and can live full, productive lives,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “Like other medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, the key to recovery is identifying the problem and taking active measures to treat it as soon as possible.”

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health is the primary source of statistical information on the use of illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco in the United States. The survey involves face-to-face interviews at the respondent's place of residence.

The survey also found that 1.5 million adults—5 percent of the adult population—had serious mental illness in the past year. Serious mental illness in America is defined as mental illness that resulted in major functional impairment, which substantially interfered with or limited one or more key life activities. This can include disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or major depression.

Almost 4 percent of people surveyed—which translates to an estimated 8.5 million Americans—said they had serious thoughts of suicide, and about one-quarter of those people said they had made suicide plans. Of the group that made plans, half attempted suicide.

Drug use and mental illness in America often coexist, the report found. Adults who were mentally ill in the past year were more than three times as likely to have met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse in that period than those who had not experienced mental illness in the past year (17.5 percent versus 5.8 percent).

Those who were seriously mentally ill in the last year were even more likely to have had substance dependence or abuse. And majorly depressed people who were ages 12 to 17 were more than twice as likely to have used illicit drugs. A major depressive episode is defined as a period of at least two weeks when a person experiences a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities.

While almost 60 percent of people reporting serious mental illness in America said they had received treatment in the past year, only 38 percent of people with less-severe illness were treated.

Federal public-health experts in recent years have been calling attention to the National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the companion website. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, funded by SAMHSA, provides immediate free and confidential crisis round-the-clock counseling to anyone in need throughout the country, every day of the year.

What can be done to extend treatment for mental health disorders to more people? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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