Why is Mental Health important?

It is estimated that mental health problems and mental illness will affect between 10-15 per cent of young people in any one year. That is around 1 in every 10 young people. In adults it is around 1 in 5 who experience problems at some stage in their life.

Many people will recover without much help and most other people who are treated will fully recover. However, a smaller number of people will experience problems for longer.

Mental illnesses are just like any other illness, such as heart disease, diabetes and asthma.

In the past, the more severely affected people were treated in psychiatric institutions or hospitals, and had no say how and where they wished to live their lives. The majority of these people were adults.

Different forms of help and treatments have improved. Most people are helped in community health centres or by trained professionals. Some people will need to go to hospital occasionally for short periods of time.

Diagnosis of mental disorders is made on the basis of a multidimensional assessment that takes into account observable signs and symptoms of illness, the course and duration of illness, response to treatment, and degree of functional impairment. One problem has been that there is no clearly measurable threshold for functional impairments. Efforts are currently under way in the epidemiology of mental disorders to create a threshold, or agreed-upon minimum level of functional limitation, that should be required to establish a “case” (i.e., a clinically significant condition). Epidemiology reflecting the state of psychiatric nosology during the past two decades has focused primarily on symptom clusters and has not uniformly applied—or, at times, even measured—the level of dysfunction 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Q. Are people born with mental illness?
The causes of mental illness are unclear. Some mental illness can run in families. Many other factors can contribute to the causes of mental illness. For example: things like stress, grief, relationship breakdown, child abuse, unemployment, social isolation and times of accidents and life-threatening illness.

Q. Are people with a mental illness dangerous?
No. This is not true. People with a mental illness are seldom dangerous. Most acts of violence are carried out by people who do not have a mental illness. 
When treated appropriately and early, it is possible for many people to recover fully from most mental illnesses. For other people, mental illness is like many physical illnesses which require ongoing treatment, but which can be managed so that the individual can participate in every day life.

Q. Do people with a mental illness need to be kept away from other people?

No. Most people with a mental illness recover quickly, and the majority do not need hospital care. Few families in the United States are untouched by mental illness. Determining just how many people have mental illness is one of the many purposes of the field of epidemiology. Epidemiology is the study of patterns of disease in the population. Among the key terms of this discipline, encountered throughout this report, are incidence, which refers to new cases of a condition, which occur during a specified period of time, and prevalence, which refers to cases (i.e., new and existing) of a condition observed at a point in time or during a period of time. According to current epidemiological estimates, at least one in five people has a diagnosable mental disorder during the course of a year (i.e., 1-year prevalence).

Q. Can anyone develop a mental illness?
Yes. In fact, mental illness is very common. The current prevalence estimate is that about 20 percent of the U.S. population are affected by mental disorders during a given year. Based on data on functional impairment, it is estimated that 9 percent of all U.S. adults experience some significant functional impairment. Most (7 percent of adults) have disorders that persist for at least 1 year. A subpopulation of 5.4 percent of adults is considered to have a “serious” mental illness (SMI). Serious mental illness is a term defined by Federal regulations that generally applies to mental disorders that interfere with some area of social functioning. About half of those with SMI (or 2.6 percent of all adults) were identified as being even more seriously affected, that is, by having “severe and persistent” mental illness (SPMI). This category includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, other severe forms of depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These disorders and the problems faced by these special populations with SMI and SPMI are described further in subsequent chapters. Among those most severely disabled are the approximately 0.5 percent of the population who receive disability benefits for mental health-related reasons from the Social Security Administration.

Q. What do mental health problems cost America annually?
The costs of mental illness are exceedingly high. Although the question of cost is discussed more fully in Chapter 6, a few of the central findings are presented here. The direct costs of mental health services in the United States in 1996 totaled $69.0 billion. This figure represents 7.3 percent of total health spending. An additional $17.7 billion was spent on Alzheimer’s disease and $12.6 billion on substance abuse treatment. Direct costs correspond to spending for treatment and rehabilitation nationwide.

When economists calculate the costs of an illness, they also strive to identify indirect costs. Indirect costs can be defined in different ways, but here they refer to lost productivity at the workplace, school, and home due to
premature death or disability. The indirect costs of mental illness were estimated in 1990 at $78.6 billion. More than 80 percent of these costs stemmed from disability rather than death because mortality from mental disorders is relatively low. 

Last updated: 12/07/2003

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