Mental Illness Statistics

When SAMHSA released a report on mental health statistics for our country in 2012, they found that in the previous year, 45.9 million Americans above the age of 18 years, or 20% of American adults, experienced mental illness.1

Seriousness of Mental Illness

SAMHSA administrators acknowledged the seriousness of mental health disorders like schizophrenia. Administrator Pamela S. Hyde said, “Mental illnesses can be managed successfully, and people do recover. Mental illness is not an isolated public health problem. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity often coexist with mental illness and treatment of the mental illness can reduce the effects of these disorders. The Obama Administration is working to promote the use of mental health services through health reform. People, families, and communities will benefit from increased access to mental health services.”1

The CDC agreed. “Mental illness is a significant public health problem in itself, but also because it is associated with chronic medical diseases,” said Ileana Arias, Ph.D., Principal Deputy Director of CDC. “[The] report issued by SAMHSA provides further evidence that we need to continue efforts to monitor levels of mental illness in the United States in order to effectively prevent this important public health problem and its negative impact on total health.”1

The Forgotten Mentally Ill

However, accusations arose that say SAMHSA did not accurately present information for their report because they failed to count people in jails, prisons, and hospitals, and the homeless who have mental health issues.2 The accusation stated that SAMHSA underestimated the incidence of serious mental illness and overstated the percentage of those receiving treatment for psychological difficulties.

This raised some concerns, particularly about the number of mentally ill inmates in our country. Studies suggest that 10 percent of prisoners, or 218,000 individuals in the system at any given time, have severe psychiatric disorders.3

Jailing the Mentally Ill

Mentally ill individuals find themselves behind bars for a variety of reasons. Some are arrested because local businesses do not want them seen on their streets. Police in some areas arrest people with serious mental illness to keep them from causing a disruption or hurting themselves or others. Mercy bookings are done by police who are trying to protect mentally ill citizens from being victimized. Some family members reportedly go through the justice system to get their loved ones into treatment for addiction or mental health issues, because they believe the process is faster that way.

Not Equipped to Treat

The problem with the practice of arresting mentally ill citizens or those who struggle with substance abuse and a co-occurring disorder is that the justice system is not equipped to treat or diagnose these individuals. Corrections officers in 84 percent of jails receive either no training or less than three hours training in the special problems of people with severe mental illness.2 Jails and prisons are becoming crowded with patients they cannot help. 

A prison psychiatrist in California said, “We are literally drowning in patients, running around trying to put our fingers in the bursting dikes, while hundreds of men continue to deteriorate psychiatrically before our eyes into serious psychoses… The crisis stems from recent changes in the mental health laws allowing more mentally sick patients to be shifted away from the mental health department into the department of corrections.”3

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