Nearly 50 million Americans suffered from one or another form of mental illness in 2010, according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), a federal government agency founded in 1992 to survey and reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on communities throughout the country.
The survey found that young adults and especially young women were susceptible to mental illness to a degree that it substantially interfered with their lives. SAMHSA defines mental illness as “diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorders.”
Especially the Young Are Increasingly Affected
By Substance Abuse and Mental Illness
For the study, SAMHSA surveyed over 67,500 participants aged 12 and older in all parts of the United States. The results showed that almost 2 million teenagers experienced at least one bout of depression, which is defined as a period lasting at least two weeks. Nearly 9 million adult Americans had serious thoughts of suicide, with 2.5 million making suicide plans and 1.1 million making an actual attempt.
The study results came as a surprise, according to Peter Delany, Director of SAMHSA’s Office of Applied Studies. “We all know people who have had a depression or anxiety disorder,” he said, “but this is a pretty big number.” He said he was somewhat reluctant to speculate on the reasons for these developments, which are not easy to pinpoint. “The recent economic downturn may be a factor for some, but these conditions are multifactorial – there are biological issues, there are social issues and also personal issues.”
Delany thinks that many people who are struggling don’t seek treatment because of the stigma that is often attached to mental illness. Many also lack insurance coverage to pay for their care. According to SAMHSA, less than 40 percent of those with a mental illness receive health services. That’s extremely unfortunate, said Delany. “We know with the appropriate use of medication and with good treatment people can recover and go on to lead very healthy and productive lives,” he said.
Other experts agree. “Mental illness is a treatable problem,” according to Dr. Ihsan Salloum, Director of the Addiction Psychiatry and Psychiatric Comorbidity Programs at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “[But] there is a gap between the need and how many people reach treatment,” he added.
SAMHSA also investigated connections between mental illness and substance abuse such as use of cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin. In its report, the agency concluded that people who abused drugs or alcohol showed substantially higher rates of mental illness than those who did not – 20 percent versus 6 percent. Teenagers who suffered from extended periods of depression were twice as likely to develop drug problems than their peers who did not have such experiences.
As alarming as the SAMHSA report sounds, it is also somewhat vague because it compiles a number of different issues that may be connected but are by no means identical. For instance, thoughts of suicide may not always be symptoms of mental illness but can result from deep despair. Hopelessness is not necessarily a mental dysfunction but can be a conceivable reaction in the face of extraordinarily dire situations. Alcohol and drug abuse are far too widespread among the general population to label them as symptoms of actual mental illness. People use them for recreational purposes and often, of course, to numb themselves in times of heightened stress and anxiety.
Still, the report should give us pause and have us ask how dysfunctional our lives must have become to cause so much suffering especially among the young who are supposed to look to the future with optimism and confidence. Hardly a promising picture for all of us.