A Snapshot of Mental Illness in America

“Mental illness to me is like being stuck in a cage of isolation, fear, and self-doubt. Only, the cage door appears open to everyone else.” — Ley Grady, from The Mighty’s compilation of descriptions of what it feels like to live with a mental illness.

Last year, Mental Health America asked social media users to share what #mentalillnessfeelslike. The varied responses, highlighted in the post by The Mighty, underscore one of the biggest challenges for people living with mental illnesses and practitioners who serve this community – everyone experiences mental illnesses in a different way.

Due to the nature of mental illness, many people do not recognize signs of suffering among their family members, friends, colleagues and community members. But living with a mental illness presents unique day-to-day challenges that can affect important aspects of each individual’s life, including his or her career, physical health and relationships. Symptoms of mental illnesses can range from mild issues such as difficulty with distractedness to more serious conditions that include crippling depression, severe anxiety and hallucinations. Adults living with mental illnesses are also more likely to suffer from alcohol and drug dependence and to misuse medications such as pain relievers. Understanding and addressing the needs of those coping with a mental illness will require listening to their personal experiences.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost one in five adults in the U.S. is living with a mental illness. SAMHSA defines a mental illness as having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The severity of a mental illness is designated based on the level of functional impairment for those living with these illnesses.

One way to advocate for people living with mental illnesses is to spread awareness. Although those coping with a mental illness may feel isolated, they are far from alone. Improving the general public’s understanding can encourage more people with a mental illness to share their stories. This will help reduce stigmas associated with these conditions and enable employers, social service providers and even intimate partners to create more supportive spaces for those coping with illnesses. Fostering a sense of understanding may also encourage those who would otherwise ignore or hide their symptoms to seek needed treatment or counseling. To help identify some of the challenges for those living with a mental illness, the MSW@USC created three infographics that provide a snapshot of what mental illness looks like in America, how mental illness and substance use are related, and what barriers exist for people in need of treatment. The MSW@USC encourages all advocates to share these images as we push for greater understanding and empathy for those living with a mental illness.     

Mental Illness in the U.S.

More than 43 million adults in the U.S., almost 18%, experienced a form of mental illness in 2015.

Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. experiences a serious mental illness in a given year.

21.2% of women experienced mental illness, while 14.3% of men experienced mental illness.

The rates of mental illness by race and ethnicity varied for adults in each group:

  • Multiracial: 29.5%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 21.2%
  • White: 19.3%
  • Black: 15.4%
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 14.8%
  • Hispanic or Latino: 14.5%
  • Asian: 12%

Among adults in the U.S. in 2015:

  • 16.1 million had a major depressive episode
  • 10.3 million had a major depressive episode with severe impairment
  • 9.8 million experienced serious thoughts of suicide
  • 2.7 million made suicide plans
  • 1.4 million attempted suicide

Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2014.

More than 44,000 Americans die by suicide each year.

Approximately 121 people die by suicide each day.

Men are 3.5x more likely to die by suicide than women.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Mental Illness and Substance Use

Drug abuse complicates the signs, symptoms and treatment of adults dealing with mental illness.

~14 million adults with a mental illness used illicit drugs in 2015.

Adults with a mental illness were more than 2x as likely to use illicit drugs than adults without a mental illness.

Drug Use Among Adults with a Mental Illness*

  • Marijuana: 10.1 million
  • Cocaine: 1.8 million
  • Hallucinogens: 1.5 million
  • Methamphetamine: 972,000
  • Heroin: 476,000
  • Inhalants: 474,000

Misuse of a Psychotherapeutics Among Adults with a Mental Illness*

  • Pain Relievers: 4.8 million
  • Tranquilizers: 2.7 million
  • Stimulants: 1.8 million
  • Sedatives: 634,000

*Adults may be counted in multiple categories indicating use of multiple drugs

Adults with a mental illness were 3 times more likely to misuse psychotherapeutics than those without a mental illness in 2015.

Illicit drug or alcohol dependence affected 5.8 million adults with mental illness. This was almost 4.5x the rate of people without mental illness. 


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015/NSDUH-DetTabs-2015.htm

Barriers to Mental Health Treatment

The biggest challenge for individuals with mental illness is getting help in the first place. There are many successful treatments for those who do get help.

Unfortunately, most adults with mental illness do not receive treatment or counseling.  In 2015:

Received: 43.1%

Did not receive: 56.9%

Top reasons people did not receive counseling:

  • Cost of treatment
  • Skepticism of effectiveness
  • Stigma associated with mental illness
  • Concern about medication
  • Accessibility of services

In 2017, more than 100 million people lived in areas identified as having a shortage of mental health professionals necessary to serve their populations.

Nevada, Alabama and Mississippi consistently ranked worst for access to mental health care between 2011 and 2014.

Number of people living in areas with mental health professional shortages based on location

  • Rural: 25.1 million people
  • Partially rural: 57.4 million people
  • Non-rural: 26.1 million people

3,400 mental health practitioners are needed to address national shortages in mental health care.  


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Mental Health America

Health Resources and Services Administration

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Phone Number: 877-700-4679
Email Address: sswvac@msw.usc.edu


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