How Widespread is Poor Mental Health in the United States?

By Rachel Barbaresi ’18

Have you ever spent any amount of time worrying about a loved one who suffers from a mental illness? Have you ever felt alone in wondering why, with all the people in the world, your loved one has been burdened with the challenge of facing the destructiveness of clinical depression? Well, in fact, you are not alone. Based on data gathered from the General Social Survey (GSS), in 2002, 80% of people in the United States reported knowing someone who has seen a psychologist, mental health professional, social worker or other counselor in attempts to improve their mental health status. Additionally also in 2002, over three fifths (61%) of the population reported knowing someone who had been hospitalized due to a mental illness. These are shocking to most people who perceive their troubled loved one constituting only a very small proportion of the population. However, it is important to realize that if other people have not confided in you about their mental illness, it does not mean that they are not struggling. It is a very distinct possibility that they are simply limiting the size of their support system in order to conform to our society’s norms of not discussing poor mental health. With such a strong stigma associated with admitting to depression or anxiety, we can understand why people believe that issues related to poor mental health in the U.S. are much less prevalent than they actually are. However, even with this stigma, in 2014, 52% – over half the population – reported that during the past year, they often spent time talking with someone they knew personally who was a bit down or depressed. Therefore, just because someone is not specifically telling you about their anxiety or depression doesn’t mean that they aren’t telling someone else – just because you aren’t hearing about someone’s struggles, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

In addition to not hearing about someone’s poor mental health, not seeing someone struggling with poor mental health also does not allow you to conclude that they are mentally healthy. In 2006, 51% of the U.S. citizens surveyed by the GSS indicated that they frequently or occasionally see someone in public who looks like they have a serious mental health problem. However, how can you look at someone and make an accurate snap judgment about his or her mental health status? Many people who have struggled with anxiety or depression for years have become experts in hiding their symptoms in public to avoid being negatively labeled as mentally unstable. Because of this, the proportion of individuals who struggle with mental health issues and are seen in public is most likely substantially higher than 51%. It is also important to remember that there does exist a subgroup of the population whose mental health is so poor that they choose not go out in public at all. In addition to these individuals, there are people who struggle with poor mental health but physically cannot go out in the public, such as prisoners, patients, and individuals who are controlled by abusive relationships. However, all of these types of individuals who are not necessarily seen in public are still there and part of the story of poor mental health in the United States.

Hopefully, after taking all of this eye opening information into consideration, you are able to see that whether you are dealing with a mental illness or know someone who is struggling with poor mental health, you are not alone. In fact, based on all of these statistics, you are actually a minority if mental health issues are completely irrelevant to your life. And, if you do happen to be in this minority, chances are that even though no one has disclosed their mental status to you, you, without knowing it, do know or have seen someone, most likely more than one person, who suffers from poor mental health.

If you’re like me you might worry that you have been oblivious to your loved one’s unspoken struggles. My advice? Reach out. Although you may feel overwhelmingly close with someone, it is not easy for anyone to admit to having a problem and wanting help. Now that we know just how prevalent these issues are in our society, we cannot pretend that we don’t know what to do.