Mental illness is becoming more common, especially among young adults, according to a recent government study.
Approximately 20 percent of American adults experience some sort of mental illness, and 5 percent suffer from a severe case, according to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The study—which surveyed approximately 70,000 individuals—found that people who are young, female, unemployed or part of a lower socioeconomic bracket are the most susceptible to experiencing mental illness.
“Psychiatric disorders are far more common than we thought in the past,” said Dr. Marvin Swartz, division head of social and community psychiatry at Duke Medicine. “College [and college-age] students do have higher rates of mental disorder in general.”
Nearly 30 percent of young adults ages 18 to 25 suffer from mental illness, but their symptoms range from mild to severe. People who suffer from a disorder are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders, according to the study, which was conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The most troubling part of the study is that less than half of affected individuals seek treatment for their condition, said David Rabiner, director of undergraduate studies and associate research professor of psychology and neuroscience. Rabiner added that a serious mental disorder constitutes any set of problems that significantly impairs a person’s ability to function socially, whether it is depression, anxiety or any other problem,
As such, defining what constitutes as an illness is debatable, said Allen Frances, a retired Duke professor of psychiatry.
“There isn’t a clear, bright-line definition of ‘serious mental illness,’” said Frances, who was quoted in a Washington Post article about the study. “There’s no biological test that tells us who does and who does not have a mental disorder. The milder the condition, the more it borders on normality, and it’s a popular border.”
Both Rabiner and Allen noted that the 5 percent of Americans who suffer from a severe case of mental illness may not capture the full extent of the issue. A larger number of people have disorders that are psychiatric in nature but are not included in the 5 percent estimate.
“The 5 percent is substantially lower than [the percentage of those with a] psychiatric illness,” Rabiner said.