According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated one in five people in the United States live with mental illness.1 This equals an estimated 46.6 million people in 2017. Mental illness ranges in types and severity. Doctors usually classify mental illnesses as serious mental illness or any mental illness. The following is a report of how often a person experiences mental illness by illness type, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:2
Anxiety disorder: 19.1% (48 million people)
Bipolar disorder: 2.8% (7 million people)
Borderline personality disorder: 1.4% (3.5 million people)
Major depressive episode: 7.2% (17.7 million people)
Obsessive compulsive disorder: 1.2% (3 million people)
Post-traumatic stress disorder: 3.6% (9 million people)
Schizophrenia: less than 1% (1.5 million people)
Understanding the most common types of mental health issues.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that causes a person to have problems paying attention. They may also act impulsively and are hyperactive. While doctors diagnose children with ADHD, adults can have the condition as well.
Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that causes extreme shifts in mood. This is identified by alternating periods of mania and depression. The duration of mania may last several days or even weeks before switching to depression.
Depression is a serious medical disorder that causes a person to experience extreme feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Some people may struggle with depression for months to years. Depression can be a serious mental illness resulting in thoughts of suicide and self-harm.
An eating disorder is a condition where severe changes in eating behaviors occur in an effort to control weight. Forms of eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Anorexia is a condition where food is restricted. Bulimia is when a behavior will occur before or after food is eaten in an attempt to remove the food from the body. Binge-eating is when a large volume of food is eaten as a means to escape life’s stressors. Some people may engage in binge eating and purge or vomit.
PTSD is a condition where a person who has survived a traumatic event (such as a military battle or natural disaster) experiences flashbacks and changes in mental health. PTSD may often occur alongside other forms of mental illness, including substance abuse, depression, and anxiety.
Schizoaffective disorder is a condition that can cause symptoms similar to that of schizophrenia. However, this condition also includes symptoms of a mood disorder, such as depression or mania.
Anxiety disorders occur when a person experiences feelings of distress and worry, often due to everyday activities or interactions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders.3
Borderline personality disorder is a medical condition where a person experiences regular changes in emotion and self-image. Unstable social relationships are also a sign of Borderline personality disorder.
A dissociative disorder is a type of disorder where there is a disconnection from consciousness or memory. Sometimes, a traumatic event may trigger a dissociative disorder as a means to escape traumatic memories.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a condition where unwanted thoughts or behaviors begin to impact daily life. Sometimes, there are repetitive unpleasant thoughts. No matter how hard the person tries, they keep thinking these thoughts. OCD may also present itself as engaging in repetitive behaviors, such as counting objects or excessive hand washing.
Psychosis is a condition where a person has problems telling the difference between what is real and what isn’t. They may see, hear, or even smell things that aren’t there. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 3 in 100 people will have a psychotic episode in their lifetime.
Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that can often cause a person to experience bouts of psychosis. They may have problems with their emotions and have problems thinking clearly. The condition can severely affect a person’s daily life and overall health.
For any adult who has a mental illness, women are more likely than men to struggle with mental illness. An estimated 22.3 percent of women have a mental illness while 15.1 percent of men have a mental illness in the United States.
Of the age groups for people with mental illness, those ages 18 to 25 were most likely to have a mental illness. The following is the information about age groups and mental illness from the National Institute of Mental Health:
Ages 18 to 25: 25.8%
Ages 26 to 49: 22.2%
Ages 50 and older: 13.8%
These statistics show that mental illness can affect a person at any stage in their life. It can also be a condition that affects a person throughout their lifetime.
Serious mental illness involves medical conditions that impair a person’s ability to function in their daily life. Examples of serious mental illnesses include schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 11.2 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States experience a serious mental illness. This is an estimated 4.5 percent of all adults in the United States. Like any mental illness, women experience serious mental illness at higher rates than men. An estimated 5.7 percent of women have serious mental illness while 3.3 percent of men have a mental illness.
The following are the ages of the average person in the United States who lives with a serious mental illness:
Ages 18 to 25: 7.5%
Ages 26 to 49: 5.6%
Ages 50 and older: 2.7%
Adults who are two or more races are the most likely to experience serious mental illness. An estimated 8.1 percent of adults reporting two or more races have a serious mental illness. White adults experience a serious mental illness at a rate of 5.2 percent. Asian adults experience serious mental illness at the lowest rates. An estimated 2.1 percent of Asian Americans report having a serious mental illness.
People with serious mental illness are more likely to seek treatment for their condition. This is likely because serious mental illness can impair functioning to the point of requiring medical treatment. An estimated 7.5 million (or 66.7 percent) of people in the United States with a serious mental illness received health treatment in the past year. Of those who sought treatment for serious mental illness, an estimated 71.5 percent were women, while 57.7 percent were men.
People with serious mental illness represent an estimated 20.1 percent of people living on the street or in a homeless shelter. An estimated 37 percent of adults in the state and federal prison system have a mental illness.
There are many misconceptions about mental illness people still believe, even after greater efforts for education about mental health. This section will address some of the most common misconceptions around mental illness.
Many times, doctors can trace the roots of a person’s mental illness back to their childhood. According to MentalHealth.gov, half of all people with a mental health disorder have signs of that disorder before they turn 14 years old.4 While doctors know that children can struggle with mental health, children usually don’t get treated often. Less than one-fifth of children with a diagnosable mental illness don’t get the treatments they need to live healthier lives.
If given a choice, very few people would desire to have a mental illness. Having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean that a person is weak or has a personality flaw. It means there are changes in the brain’s chemistry that affect their well-being. A person can’t simply snap their fingers and feel better when they have a mental illness – these conditions simply don’t work that way.
People who struggle with mental health can be anyone, including family, friends, and co-workers. You interact with people every day and may never know what they’re going through on the inside. Having support from others can make a big difference. For some people, it empowers them to get help for their problems.
There are several ways you can help a person who is struggling with mental illness. These include:
There are lots and lots of people working in the United States today who have struggles with mental illness. Support from their employers can go a long way in reducing overall costs and ensuring an individual is as productive as possible. When employers offer mental health services (such as insurance to cover therapy), their employees are less likely to be absent, are more likely to increase their productivity, and usually spend less in medical and disability costs.
A lot of the country’s most violent criminals have struggled with mental illness in their lives, but that doesn’t mean that every person who has a mental health issue is violent or dangerous. According to MentalHealth.gov, an estimated 3 to 5 percent of people who engage in criminal violence have a serious mental illness.
In reality, people who have mental illnesses are often victims of violence, and those with severe mental illness are ten times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime. Sadly, a person in a vulnerable mental health state seems to be a target for criminals who want to harm others.
Medications are an example of a treatment (but not the only treatment) that can help a person when they struggle with mental illness. However, simply taking a pill and not addressing other problems doesn’t usually help. Typically, participation in some form of talk therapy along with possibly taking medications to help with conditions such as depression and anxiety, can reduce symptoms.
Therapy can be a longer-term solution because a therapist can teach how to recognize behaviors that result in feeling good and ones that result in bad feelings. Ideally, this results in changed routines and behavior for good health into the future.
A number of factors can influence mental health. This includes family history, environment, and things that happened to them throughout their life, such as trauma or the loss of a loved one. The World Health Organization calls these factors the “determinants of mental health.” 5 Let’s take a look at each determinant.
A person’s family history can affect their mental health. For example, exposure to drugs and alcohol during development in the womb can cause learning disabilities. Some people are also born with chromosome changes that can affect their abilities to learn and think.
In addition to family history, a person also learns behaviors and how to deal with difficult situations over time. This includes how to respond to the world and changes around them, as well as how to take responsibility for their health. The World Health Organization calls these factors emotional and social intelligence.
Researchers know that people in lower socioeconomic classes (low-income families) are more likely to struggle with mental illness. Sadly, people in lower socioeconomic classes are often given fewer opportunities to succeed and to engage positively with the world around them.
Environmental factors are aspects of the world a person usually can’t control, but still affect them. An example is a world financial crisis or housing shortage that limits success. A person’s level of access to services like water, essential health services, and a safe environment can also affect mental health.
These three factors interact with each other to determine a person’s overall mental health and well-being. They can be positive – such as having confidence, supportive family, physical security, and easy access to basic services – or negative, such as having low self-esteem, a history of medical illness, and little access to basic services.
The World Health Organization reports some groups of people are more likely to have a mental health disorder. These include people who:
Live in poverty
Have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, or rheumatoid arthritis
Are a part of a minority group
Are exposed to traumatic situations, such as war or conflict
Have close family members who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse
Doctors also know what happens in a person’s childhood can dramatically affect their mental health later in life. If a person doesn’t grow up in a safe and supportive environment, they may not learn the mental coping skills they need when they become an adult.
Mental illness doesn’t just affect a person’s health at that time – it also can affect overall health for the rest of their lives. For example, a person who struggles with depression has a 40 percent greater risk of having heart problems or a metabolic disease compared to the general population. The risks for these conditions increase when there is a serious mental illness present.
A person is twice as likely to have heart disease or metabolic disease (like diabetes) if they have a serious mental illness.
People with mental illness are also more likely to have a substance use disorder. This includes abusing substances such as drugs or alcohol. An estimated 19.3 percent of adults in the United States with mental illness also have a substance use disorder.
Mental illness, especially depression, is a common occurrence in patients with several chronic illnesses. Examples of these illnesses include:
Doctors have found that mental illness can affect the body and possibly lead to chronic illness in several ways. This includes:
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people who experience depression, as well as another medical illness, tend to have more severe symptoms with both illnesses. This can dramatically affect quality of life and increase healthcare costs.
Getting treated for mental illness can help improve physical health as well as mental health.
Unfortunately, people who struggle with mental illness aren’t likely to seek treatments for their condition. Of the estimated 42.6 percent of people in the United States who struggle with mental illness, an estimated 19.8 million have sought treatment for their mental health condition in the past year.
Women are more likely to struggle with a mental illness – and they are also more likely to seek medical treatment for mental health services. An estimated 47.6 percent of women with any mental illness have received treatment in the past year. An estimated 34.8 percent of men were more likely to seek treatment for mental illness in the past year.
While young adults experience mental illness in the highest percentage, they’re also the least likely to seek medical treatment. An estimated 38.4 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 sought treatment for their mental illness in the past year. Those ages 50 and older were more likely to seek treatment for their mental illness, with 44.2 percent seeking treatment. An estimated 43.3 percent of those ages 26 to 49 years sought treatment for their mental illness in the past year.
If more people who struggle with mental illness could get treatments, they could likely live happier and healthier lives. There isn’t one certain treatment for each type of mental illness. Instead, doctors often recommend a combination of medications, counseling, and wellness activities like exercise and meditation.
One of the most common approaches to helping treat mental illness is psychotherapy. This involves a person speaking to someone who is trained in listening to other people’s concerns and experiences. Sometimes, the person provides education about how a person can feel better. Other times, the therapist helps a person find their motivation to feel better.
Therapists can include psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and licensed therapists. Each has different training and may use different approaches to therapy. Examples of these approaches include:
This is a very common therapy approach. When a person is in this type of therapy, they talk a lot about how they feel. A therapist listens to them, who can then make suggestions about how a person may be able to make changes in the way they think and act so they can feel better. Doctors often use CBT to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. 6
This therapy approach is often used to help people with borderline personality disorder. When a person participates in this therapy, they learn how to regulate their emotions better. This helps them from having the extreme highs and lows that affect a person with borderline personality disorder.
This approach involves talking to a person about the relationships a person with mental illness has. This includes relationships with a significant other, family, friends, and co-workers. A therapist can help a person build stronger relationships whenever possible. They can also help them figure out if there are relationships in their life that do more harm than good. This therapy approach is helpful for depression as well as borderline personality disorder.
These are just some of the therapeutic approaches. A person can usually talk with their doctor to figure out what will work best for them, given what mental illness or illnesses they struggle with.
Every day, researchers are looking at new medications that could help people who struggle with mental illness. There are lots of medicines on the market right now that can also help.
A lot of people have misconceptions about taking medicines when a person has a mental illness. A lot of doctors will put it this way: If you have an infection, do you take antibiotics? Chances are you most likely do. Why should taking medicines for mental illness be any different? Because many mental illnesses are the result of imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain, medicines can often help a person get these back into balance.
Medications don’t cure mental illness, but they can help a person navigate through their daily life. When taken in combination with therapy and other activities such as participation in support groups, a person may be able to feel better.
There are different groups or classes of medications that doctors may use to treat mental illness. Examples include the following:
Anti-depressants are medicines that help reduce depression. Doctors may also prescribe them to treat conditions like anxiety, eating disorders, and even some phobias.
There are lots of different classes or groups of antidepressants. Doctors group them based on how they work in the body. Some of the medicines a person took 30 years ago for depression have a lot of side effects. There are a lot of newer medications out there to treat depression that may not have the same side effects. Examples of these drugs include:
Tricyclic antidepressants: These are older medications doctors use to treat depression. Examples include amitriptyline (Elavil) and Doxepin (Sinequan).
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: Doctors also call these SSRIs. They include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram oxalate (Lexapro), paroxetine HCL (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft).
Selective serotonin & norepinephrine inhibitors: Doctors also call these medications SNRIs. They include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor).
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors: Doctors also call these MAOIs. Examples include phenelzine (Nardil) and selegiline (EMSAM).
Atypical antidepressants: Doctors prescribe the medication bupropion (Wellbutrin) to treat depression. They believe it affects dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the body to reduce depression.
Tetracyclic antidepressants: Doctors also call these medications noradrenergic and specific serotonergic antidepressants. An example is mirtazapine (Remeron).
You shouldn’t just suddenly stop taking an anti-depressant. This can cause side effects and sometimes make your feelings of depression come back (and a lot stronger). If you don’t think your antidepressants are working or you want to stop taking them, talk to your doctor that prescribed them first.
Doctors usually prescribe medications to treat anxiety that a person takes for as short a time as possible. Some anti-anxiety medications are addictive and habit-forming, so taking them for a short time while a person learns how to handle better their anxiety is usually the safest option. Examples of medicines doctors prescribe to treat anxiety include:7
Benzodiazepines:These medicines may be habit-forming. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan).
Buspirone: Also known as Buspar, this is an anti-anxiety medication that isn’t habit-forming. Doctors usually prescribe it to treat generalized anxiety disorder.
Although the FDA doesn’t specifically list these medicines for anxiety, doctors sometimes prescribe them because they can help. Examples include gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica).
If you take benzodiazepines, you also shouldn’t suddenly stop taking them. Doctors prescribe these medicines to treat seizure disorders. If a person suddenly stops taking them, it can throw their brain chemicals out of whack and possibly lead to a seizure.
Antipsychotic medications are to help people who are at risk for psychosis or losing touch with reality. Doctors may prescribe these medicines to treat conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Examples of anti-psychotics include aripirazole (Abilify), clozapine (Clozaril), lurasidone (Latuda), quetiapine (Seroquel), risperidone (Risperdal), and ziprasidone (Geodon). 8
Unfortunately, a lot of anti-psychotics have significant side effects. Some people find they make them feel very sedated and sleepy. Others experience a condition known as tardive dyskinesia, where they have unusual body movements, like jerking, twisting, or lip-smacking. A doctor can prescribe medicines to reduce the likelihood this will occur, but it is possible.
Other potential side effects include blood sugar changes, decreases in white blood cell counts, and risks for a medical condition called neuroleptic malignant syndrome8. This is a medical emergency where a person can experience high fever, high blood pressure, muscle rigidity, and even coma. If a person has a lot of side effects taking a particular antipsychotic, a doctor will usually prescribe another option.
Medicines to stabilize a person’s mood can help to keep a person from going depressed to manic. They’re usually helpful in treating people who have bipolar disorder. They don’t completely keep you from having changes to your mood throughout the course of a day. They can, however, reduce the very highs and lows of personality that can be harmful to a person who struggles with bipolar disorder.
Examples of mood stabilizers include carbamazepine (Tegretol), divalproex sodium (Depakote), lamotrigine (Lamictal), lithium, and valproic acid (Depakene). Medications like lithium require frequent monitoring because lithium can affect your sodium levels, which could have harmful health side effects.
Sometimes, it takes a while to find the right medicine for a person. The medicines can take a while to work, and sometimes what seems like it would be right for a person doesn’t help them find relief. While the process can be frustrating, a person shouldn’t give up. Medicines help lots of people struggling with mental illness feel better every day. If a doctor can help a person find the right one or right combination, they can often feel much better.
Complementary medicines are non-traditional treatments for mental illness that can work together with medicines to help a person feel better. These include taking supplements or engaging in different kinds of therapy.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the following are some supplements a person with mental illness may take as complementary medicine approaches:9
Folate: This is a form of vitamin B that promotes brain health. Doctors can prescribe a folate supplement called methylfolate (Deplin) that may help reduce the incidence of depression and schizophrenia.
Omega-3 fatty acids: NAMI reports that taking omega-3 fatty acids may help young people who struggle with psychosis from having as many psychotic episodes.
Some people also follow special diets, such as the keto diet or a gluten-free diet, because they feel it makes them feel better. Doctors may also recommend a person engage in mind-body treatments. These promote physical activity and exercise to relieve stress and anxiety as well as help a person focus. Examples of these treatments include:
Other approaches like art or equine (horse) therapy can also help.
Mental illness can range from medical conditions that moderately impact a person’s health to those that severely impair a person’s ability to make it through a day. Mental illness can lead to thoughts of self-harm and suicide. If a person is in crisis and has these thoughts, they should call 911. Emergency medical services can treat them and potentially take them to a crisis center where they can get help until they start to feel better.
Mental illness affects not only a mental health but also physical health. Doctors know that people with mental illnesses can have greater long-term health complications. While some people, unfortunately, don’t seek treatment, there are many options available that can help a person feel better. While it may take some time to find the most effective approaches, it is possible to feel better and live a safer life when the combination is right.