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Survey Finds Many Living with Mental Illness Go Without Treatment

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Coordinator

According to a new survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 20 percent of American adults live with a mental illness. However, only 39 percent of these 45.9 million American adults received mental health services in 2010.

Furthermore, only 61 percent of the 11.4 million adults (5 percent of the population) the survey found who were impacted by a serious mental illness in the past year, which is defined as an illness that affected a person’s ability to function normally, received treatment. This means a large proportion of those who required the most support still did not receive adequate care. One of the main reasons mentioned for not receiving care: costs.

Although drug and alcohol abuse qualify as mental disorders in psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-IV, they were not considered as such in this survey. This was done so the researchers could assess whether there was a comorbidity of substance abuse and a specific mental illness.

Among the nearly 46 million Americans 18 and older who had a mental illness in 2010, 20 percent also experienced substance abuse. This rate was highest for people ages 18 to 25 (32 percent). Overall, drug and alcohol abuse was found to be more than twice as common in individuals living with a mental illness than those without one.

Individuals between the ages of 18 to 25 also experienced the greatest number of instances of mental illness, at 29.9 percent. Twenty-two percent of adults ages 26 to 49 and 14.3 percent of adults 50 and older experienced mental illness.

The most common form of treatment was prescription medication, which was used by 12 percent of adults. The number of adults using forms of therapy declined (to 7 percent), while the number of adults using medication increased.

The report is a survey of about 67,500 people across the country. The results found in this study corroborate the findings of their 2009 report.

Various organizations have produced somewhat differing results in trying to measure the number of individuals living with mental illness. While the numbers are not identical to figures published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), different methodologies can perhaps account for these discrepancies. For example, in this current study, some populations were excluded. SAMHSA did not include people living on the street—of which 25 percent experience some form of severe and persistent mental illness, active-duty members of the military—one report estimated that 472,000 service members have experienced posttraumatic stress disorder, prisoners—24 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health disorder, or hospital patients.

According to the World Health Organization, mental illness is responsible for more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.

Regardless of the differences in the numbers reached by this study and other studies (some studies have found roughly 6 percent have a serious mental illness and place the overall occurrence of mental illness in adults at 25 percent of the population), they continue to agree that a large proportion of individuals experiencing mental illness do not receive treatment.

However, because of drastic budget cuts that states have been enacted in recent years, providing assistance is becoming increasingly difficult. In total, more than $1.6 billion in general funds have been cut from state mental health budgets since 2009. This figure does not include other funds under control of other state agencies such as housing and child and adolescent services and Medicaid; when those are incorporated, the sum is even bigger and the cost on the lives of the millions of individuals living with mental illness is even greater. Additional findings were published in a report from NAMI in March 2011.


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