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Mental Health Center

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Mental Disorders Common in America

Are mental illnesses becoming more prevalent, or is psychiatry overdiagnosing?
WebMD Feature

In the span of a few months, Jacqueline Castine went from making $2,000 as a motivational speaker to getting fired from a minimum-wage post office job. She had successfully promoted a book on career enhancement, but then years later, was cleaning houses because she couldn't hold jobs elsewhere.

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The Michigan resident's highs and lows came to a head when, as a sales manager for a Detroit broadcasting outlet, she had a grand delusion that God was telling her to bankroll one of the station's charitable events.

The result: Castine ended up with a $43,000 credit card debt and thoughts of suicide.

"It was as if the bubble of unreality and distorted thinking had (burst)," says Castine, noting periods of despair coexisting with moments of great creativity. She sought psychiatric help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression.

Mental Disorders Are Common

Castine's story may seem unique, but millions of Americans share her plight. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 3.7% of American adults have bipolar disorder, and 4 out of 5 of those who have it may not know it.

In the bigger picture of psychological illness, the statistics may be even more alarming. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that roughly 22% of U.S. adults -- about one in five -- suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. According to the NIMH, about 1% of the population age 18 and older in any given year has bipolar disorder.

The numbers, however, may vary depending on the diagnostic criteria used by researchers, says William Narrow, MD, associate director of the division of research at the American Psychiatric Association (APA). He was part of the study that came up with the 22% figure cited by the NIMH.

That number, he says, may include people who may have a mild disorder -- those who may benefit from preventative treatment to keep symptoms from impairing their lives.

After reanalyzing the data, Narrow says the number of Americans with a mental disorder is closer to 15% in all ages. "I think it's more realistic in terms of who needs treatment acutely," he says.

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