Mental Illness Affects 1 in 5 Americans

Survey Shows Many Mentally Ill Americans Aren’t Getting the Medical Help They Need

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 18, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 18, 2010 -- Nearly one in five adult Americans has experienced mental illness in the past year, according to a new government survey, with women, the unemployed, and young adults more likely than others to be affected.

Among those one in five -- representing 45 million Americans -- the survey found that nearly 20%, or nearly 9 million, also had substance dependence or abuse problems in the previous year.

The results are in the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a public health agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.

"It's a sobering report," says Peter Delany, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at SAMHSA.

Access to care is wanting, with less than four in 10 of those with mental health problems in the past year getting mental health help, the survey found.

Comprehensive Look at Mental Illness in U.S.

"This is the first of its kind," Delany says of the new survey. "This is the first time we have taken a comprehensive view of mental illness on its own."

Estimates of mental illness -- such as major depressive disorder and other mental health problems -- were made based on data from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which polls about 68,700 Americans ages 12 and up.

Other noteworthy findings:

  • Of the nearly 20% of Americans with mental illness in the past year, 11 million of those, or nearly 5%, had what was defined as ''serious mental illness," Delany says. He differentiates mental illness overall from serious mental illness by severity. While both categories met criteria for diagnosis as outlined in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the lives of those with serious mental illness were more severely impaired.
  • 8.4 million adults had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year; of those, 2.2 million made a plan for killing themselves and 1 million attempted it.
  • Women ages 18 and older were more likely than men 18 and up to have any mental illness, with nearly 24% of women but 15.6% of men reporting mental illness.
  • In 2009, 2 million young people, ages 12 to 17 had major depressive episode; nearly 36% of those used illicit drugs.

Getting Help for Mental Illness

The new survey ''mirrors most of the epidemiological surveys we know about," Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, tells WebMD after reviewing the findings.

The most striking finding is ''who gets help and who does not,'' says Duckworth, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The prevalence of psychiatric illness is substantial, but for many reasons people don't access help for themselves in the same way they access help for other problems."

Societal stigma may be one reason, he says. "Society hasn't gotten on board to fully consider that mental health is part of health."

Despite efforts to reduce stigma and improve access, he says, issues remain. Another problem, he says, is that many people with psychiatric disorders ''can't appreciate that it's a disorder."

Delany hopes the new survey numbers may help to change attitudes. The survey suggests that ''many more of us in society have mental health problems [than may have been believed] and we really need to think differently."

Mental Illness and Families

The message from the new report for families of those with mental illness, Delany says, is simple: "You're really not alone."

"This report should help them feel that this is a much broader problem than people thought. This is information they can use to help advocate for themselves and family members."

For those trying to convince family or friends to get mental health help, Duckworth offers suggestions. "Lead with love," he says. ''Figure out areas of agreement. A person may not be willing to say he has bipolar disorder. He may agree he wants a girlfriend and to keep a job. Then problem-solve."

That approach, he says, offers a much better chance of convincing the person to seek help than simply asking the person to get care.

"Consider getting some support for yourself," Duckworth tells loved ones of those with mental illness. "Loving a person who has a psychiatric illness who can't or won't get help is very stressful for the family."

Show Sources


2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, November 2010.

Peter Delany, PhD, director, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, Md.

Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director, National Alliance on Mental Illness; assistant professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info