1 in 5 US adults affected by mental illness, says federal survey

Dec. 3, 2012, 1 p.m.

A new federal survey shows that more than 45 million U.S. adults had some form of mental illness in 2011. (Jenny Kaczorowski/Flickr Creative Commons)

Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. had a mental illness in 2011, says a new federal report, but only about 40 percent received treatment.

The 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is prepared by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), found that women were more likely than men and that young people (ages 18 to 25) were more likely than folks 50 or order to be among the more than 45 million people with a mental illness that year.

In safety net populations like the one that characterizes much of South Los Angeles, mental health care is perhaps even more difficult to obtain than standard health care. Elena Fernandez, the director of behavioral health at St. John's Well Child and Family Center, said by the time safety net patients gain access to mental health care, it's often too late to do any preventive work.

"If you're uninsured or undocumented, it becomes a bigger challenge, because [in order] to access mental health services, you really need to be high-risk, which is really unfortunate," she said.

Resources are limited when it comes to mental health, "especially in impoverished communities like South L.A.," said Fernandez. And when there are providers, they often get bogged down by regulations that narrowly specify how care can be used and who can be seen.

Like most other conditions, if mental illness isn't treated then it's likely to get worse. It also carries with it a unique sort of stigma.

"I think there's a stigma overall about telling someone, 'I'm seeing a psychotherapist'," said Fernandez. She added that when it comes to "impoverished communities or Latino and African-American communities," it becomes even more challenging because there's a prevalent (and inaccurate) notion that "seeing a psychotherapist or a psychologist is really for the crazy people."

The latest SAMHSA survey indicates that only about 38 percent of all adults with an mental illness received treatment, further illustrating the disparity between those who are sick and those who receive care. That rate was a bit better among people with serious mental illness – almost 60 percent of them received care for their condition.

Also among SAMHSA's findings:

– 11.5 million people were classified as having a "serious mental illness" in 2011.

– Nearly 18 percent of adults with some form of mental illness "met the criteria for a substance abuse disorder." That percentage was higher among people with a serious mental illness.

– Nearly 4 percent of all U.S. adults (about 9 million people) had serious thoughts of suicide in 2011, with 1 percent (more than 2 million) making plans and 0.5 percent (more than 1 million) making an attempt. A history or habit of substance abuse made seriously considering, planning and attempting suicide more likely.

– 2.6 million adults had both a serious mental illness and substance abuse disorder in 2011. Of those patients, nearly 66 percent received substance abuse treatment: about 12 percent received care for both conditions; nearly 50 percent received mental health treatment only; and nearly 4 percent were only treated for substance abuse.

SAMHSA also released data on youth:

– Two million young people (ages 12 to 17) had a "major depressive episode" in 2011, with girls more likely to experience one than boys.

– Youth with a major depressive episode were more likely than their depression-free counterparts to have had a substance abuse disorder in the past.

– More than 3 million youth were treated or counseled for emotional or behavioral problems in a mental health setting in 2011.

The most common reason for young people receiving mental health services in 2011 was feeling depressed; problems at home was the second-most common.

St. John's, where Fernandez works, is an all-too-rare example of a community health clinic that's attempting to integrate different forms of care.

"You have one site, one location, where you can access primary care, mental and dental health," she said.

Photo by Jenny Kaczorowski via Flickr Creative Commons.

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