Mental illness has deeply affected humanity since the beginning of time. The two most common mental illnesses in our society today are anxiety and depression, and there are many others.
Anxiety has its roots in the way in which we respond to threatening stimuli; real or imagined. This has its origins in our fight and flight response, which begins in our sympathetic nervous system and ends with our parasympathetic nervous system as we move back to calm. Unfortunately, this response doesn’t work the same for everyone, and our biology and biography (past trauma) can influence dysfunction, which takes the response beyond what is normal to what is a diagnosable condition that causes significant suffering.
Depression has its roots in “nature and nurture” as well. Everyone experiences sadness as part of the full range of emotions, but when sadness becomes severe and pervasive, and it affects functioning in our daily lives, it becomes a condition requiring mental health treatment. The human experience of these conditions has changed little, but the lens for which we examine and understand mental illness has changed significantly.
We are able to examine human experience and behavior through various scientific disciplines like clinical psychology, developmental psychology, biology, behavioral neuroscience, and many other theoretical approaches. As we have learned through these disciplines, our eye for discovery and innovating better methodologies for preventing it, treating it, and promoting recovery have improved.
Most important is the leveraging of the scientific method to get critical data to inform best practices that are proven to show effectiveness across populations. We have made significant progress regarding the treatments available, but we are still plagued with resource issues, such as funding to build and sustain mental health programs and enough providers being attracted and retained in the field to provide services to the community that are easily accessible.
Since the Community Mental Health Act in 1963, we have seen a reduction in psychiatric institutionalization by over 98%, and the majority of those struggling receive services in the community in outpatient and residential environments. That coupled with healthcare organizations switching to value-based reimbursement models, where they are incentivized to provide good outcomes and quality care financially, has led to a more preventative approach to care by meeting clients where they are in the community and focusing on prevention programs, care management, and population health. While we have made progress as a society in developing better models for care delivery and treatments for mental illness, we still have significant room for improvement on many fronts.
What are some of the discoveries we have made about mental illness? According to the World Health , researchers have discovered the following about mental illness:
- One in five Americans has experienced some form of mental illness, with one in 25 experiencing serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
- Suicide accounts for over 800,000 deaths globally each year, with over 41,000 in the U.S. alone. It is the second leading cause of death worldwide for 15-29 year olds.
- The rate of mental health disorders doubles for those who have been to war or lived through a major disaster.
- People with a mental health issue are generally nonviolent. In fact, only 3-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people with a serious mental illness.
- Many factors can lead to mental illness, including genetics, physical illness or injury, and traumatic life experiences.
- Many people do not seek treatment for mental illness due to the associated stigma. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment.
- Treatment for mental health problems doesn’t only consist of prescribed or OTC medication. Therapy, yoga, meditation and holistic treatments can all help to assuage symptoms.
- By addressing risk factors such as trauma, it is possible to prevent certain mental health disorders, especially in children and adolescents.
- Improving mental health services in low- to medium-income countries is not as costly as some may think. An investment of only $2-4 per capita would have a major impact on millions of lives.
- 5% of adults in the U.S. who have had a problem with substance abuse also suffer from mental illness.
- 20% of youth have a mental health condition, with one in 10 young people having experienced a period of major depression.
- Members of the LGBTQ community are twice as likely as straight individuals to have a mental health condition.
- 70-90% of people who seek proper treatment for mental health disorders witness a significant reduction in symptoms.
- Finally: most people living with mental illness lead productive lives despite their challenges.
The stigma around both experiencing mental illness and seeking mental health treatment has declined significantly over the last several decades; however, it is still a problem that advocates continue to fight for in order to protect the most vulnerable members of our society and ensure that resources are available to help people access the treatment needed to recover and live their best lives and function in society. Let’s keep fighting the good fight.