December 14, 2019  Last Update: November 12, 2019, 4:01 pm

1 in 5 Americans Mentally Ill?

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The National Suicide Prevention Talk Line is 800-273-8255

News reports claim 1 in 5 Americans suffered mental illness in 2011. The source of these claims is a SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) study released a few days ago, entitled ” National report finds one-in-five Americans experienced mental illness in the past year”.

These numbers are astounding, which explains the coverage on websites like Huffington Post, MedPage, and most of the news web sites.

I often hear my psychologist friends comment that the standard for diagnosing mental and behavioral issues, the DSM IV, is so broadly written that just about everyone could be clinically diagnosed as having something. Now guess where the 1 in 5 statistic comes from? A measure of how many people in a survey qualified as matching something in the DSM IV:

Mental illness among adults aged 18 or older is defined as having had a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) in the past year, based on criteria specified in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994).

A new national report reveals that 45.9 million American adults aged 18 or older, or 20 percent of this age group, experienced mental illness in the past year. The rate of mental illness was more than twice as high among those aged 18 to 25 (29.9 percent) than among those aged 50 and older (14.3 percent). Adult women were also more likely than men to have experienced mental illness in the past year (23 percent versus 16.8 percent).

But let’s not let skepticism  get in the way of recognizing the seriousness of mental illness in the US today.  The counts of real people seeking help for real mental challenges is just as astounding:


  •  an estimated 8.7 million American adults had serious thoughts of suicide in the past year – among them 2.5 million made suicide plans and 1.1 million attempted suicide
  • The economic impact of mental illness in the United States is considerable—about $300 billion in 2002
  • Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity often co-exist with mental illness and treatment of the mental illness can reduce the effects of these disorders

We know that mental illness is a significant factor in substance abuse, and this study seems to confirm that:

rates for substance dependence were far higher for those who had experienced either any mental illness or serious mental illness than for the adult population which had not experienced mental illness in the past year

The SAMHSA report is summarized in a press release and available online.




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