Understanding how prevalent mental illness is in America

Though many do not seek professional help or diagnosis, millions of Americans struggle with their mental health.

"Mental health impacts us every day in every facet of our lives," says Dr. Jen Hartstein, Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor. "Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.”

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that nearly one out of every five Americans lives with some sort of mental illness, even though they may not be diagnosed.

“We need to think about not using mental health and mental illness interchangeably. By definition, they are opposites. Not everyone has mental illness; everyone has mental health,” Hartstein says.

Mental illness can be broken down into two large categories — AMI or SMI.

AMI stands for Any Mental Illness and it’s the umbrella term used for all diagnosable conditions. SMI, or Serious Mental Illness, signifies a subset of, or one of the spokes in the umbrella, of AMI, Dr. Hartstein explains.

For example, panic disorder is considered an anxiety disorder and falls under the umbrella of AMI. When left untreated or when a patient experiences the disorder in great severity, the disorder may lead to phobias (such as agoraphobia) that will greatly impair their way of life, in some cases forcing them to claim disability. The disorder would then be considered an SMI.

All SMIs are AMI but not all those who suffer from an AMI will have an SMI.

To enhance the understanding around just how vast and prevalent mental illness is in the United States, we've created an augmented reality experience that uses color-coded sections to help visualize the lifetime prevalence for anxiety and mood disorders among adult Americans.

Place the image in front of you and walk around it to see the data sourced from the National Institute of Mental Health on adult Americans suffering from anxiety disorders, mood disorders and different parts of the mental health continuum. 

In 2017, 18.9 percent of adult Americans had AMI, which is about 46.6 million people, according to an NIMH report. The prevalence of AMI was highest in young adults aged 18-25 years old, compared to adults 26-49 years old and adults 50 and over.

But in fully understanding just how prevalent mental illness is in America, there must be a shift in the thinking we've historically used to view someone or something as "healthy" versus "sick.”

“Emotions exist within a range, or on a continuum,” Hartstein tells Yahoo Life. “We can feel sadness or we can feel despair. Because there is variability within this, we call it a continuum.”

We have all felt varying levels of emotion in their intensity and longevity, whether it's been throughout the period of one day or one year. If we can think about our mental health in this capacity as well, it can help us to understand our mental health holistically.

“Our mental health exists in a similar way, changing as we are in different situations, impacted by what is going on around us and within us. We call this the mental health continuum. We can find ourselves on different parts of the continuum at different times because life throws us a variety of experiences over the course of our lifetime,” Hartstein explains. “The mental health continuum exists for all of us and we live within it daily. When the stressors in our life become unmanageable and cause us to be ineffective in our lives for an extended period of time, we may be leaning into problem areas and may need more help for our struggles."

Throughout different stages of our lives, we shift and move all over this spectral concept that we call the mental health continuum. When we begin to tip further in one direction to a point where our emotions may be uncontrollable or our psychological and mental state are negatively affecting the day to day happenings in our lives, we may find ourselves having a diagnosable mental illness.

And for those that do find themselves diagnosed, they are not alone.

According to a 2007 study from Harvard Medical School, 19.1 percent of Americans had a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 9.7 percent had a diagnosable mood disorder.

Anxiety disorders are defined by "excessive anxiety and related behavioral disturbances" and include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and various phobia-related disorders.

About 31.1 percent of Americans will seek treatment for an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. 

These disorders differ greatly from mood disorders, which are defined as "mental illnesses in which the underlying problem primarily affects a person’s persistent emotional state," including major depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder. 

It's estimated that 21.4 percent of Americans will develop a mood disorder throughout their lives.

"Mental health is impacted by many factors, including genetics, our environment, our ability to use coping strategies and our histories," Dr. Hartstein explains. "Although gender can play a role, often this is more related to who reaches out for help. Diagnosed mental illnesses are impacted by the same factors."

It's a classic combination cocktail of nature and nurture that lead us towards one end of the continuum versus the other as we go through our lives, and thus a diagnosis for a mental illness is not a life-sentence when we consider it as a marker of where we currently are on our mental health continuum.

Since mental health is viewed on a continuum, the severity of the different disorders once diagnosed in a patient is also viewed on a spectrum of mild, moderate and severe. 

"The differences between the categorizations are generally determined by length of time of onset of symptoms, the severity of those symptoms, and how much they impair our quality of life," says Dr. Hartstein. "For some, the symptoms are there and interfering, but we can still get through our daily routine. For others, the symptoms are debilitating and can cause us to really shut down. Again, even mental illness can exist on a continuum, as evidenced by these categorizations."

In the past year, the majority of adult Americans diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (44.3 percent) suffered from a mild degree of impairment as compared to 22.8 percent who suffered from a serious degree of impairment.

This is in stark contrast to adult Americans suffering from mood disorders in the past year, where the majority of those diagnosed (45 percent) suffered from a severe degree of impairment as compared to a minimal 15 percent whose symptoms were mild.

"There is a misconception about mental illness and that it can’t touch us," Dr. Harstein says. "That’s why it is so important to think about mental health as a whole. We take care of our physical health without question. Taking care of our mental health is equally important and can actually have positive benefits to our physical being as a result."

Video and AR experience produced by Jon San

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