How Many of Us Experience Mental Illness? Some Facts

Updated: May 2, 2020

How many of us experience mental illness?

I wanted to post some statistics about what we do know about the prevalence of mental illness. This comes from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

I can’t help but think of this kind of thing when I’m at somewhere like the airport, where there are hundreds and hundreds of other people: They’re standing in line with you, walking past you in the halls, waiting at the other gates, boarding the same plane as you. Then I see a fact like the one on here, that “6.9% of American adults live with major depression.” That’s about seven individuals out of every hundred—when you’re passing hundreds of people at that airport, that means you’ve probably passed enough people with major depression to fill their own airplane! Isn’t it fascinating that this issue is all around us at the same time we’re so unaware of it?

In addition to the information above, I wanted to include some additional facts about mental illness that I’ve learned recently. These come from Abnormal Psychology, An Integrative Approach, 7th ed., by David H. Barlow and V. Mark Durand (2015).

  1. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) has about a 1% prevalence in a given year for the general population—but it’s estimated that approximately 13% us have moderate levels of obsessions or compulsions.

  2. Study after study finds that chronic stress has all sorts of negative effects on your health: It hurts your immune system, so you’re more likely to catch stuff. It’s associated with high blood pressure. You’re more likely to have a stroke or heart attack. It’s terrible for your health. So stop stressing. Stop stressing!!

  3. Individuals with “agoraphobia,” who shut themselves in: It turns out this isn’t necessarily its own example of mental illness—it’s usually an extension of panic disorder (where you have frequent panic attacks). The individual generally isn’t afraid of public spaces or people, but they’re afraid of experiencing anxiety and panic attacks and not having a way to escape the situation, so they start staying in, where they can control their environment and always have an “escape.”

  4. Multiple personalities disorder is now officially known as dissociative identity disorder (DID) (according to the American Psychiatric Association). It occurs almost exclusively in individuals who experienced severe childhood trauma, and appears to share characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  5. Somatic symptom disorder describes individuals who experience psychological physical symptoms. These are things like pain, illness, and even seizures that don’t show up on blood tests or EKG’s, that cannot be explained medically, but that still (obviously) impact an individual’s daily life. In a TED Talk, Jennifer Brea explains that, unfortunately, this umbrella term likely gets over-applied, such as in the case of individuals with rare, chronic, auto-immune disorders—where medical professionals might say they can’t help or figure their symptoms out, therefore it must be psychological.

  6. I thought the diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) just indicated a more severe form of depression, and dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder, was just a more mild form. These diagnoses do differ in severity, but an equally significant difference is that MDD comes in waves, and dysthymia’s symptoms are constant. It’s been suggested that this characteristic can make dysthymia the more concerning diagnosis. (You can also have dysthymia with waves of MDD, which is dubbed “double depression.”)

Problems with mental health are complex and prevalent!

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