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.

To cope with difficulties that they encounter as a result of mental illness, many people turn to social workers for assistance. In fact, clinically trained social workers account for about 60 percent of all mental health professionals working with this population, according to the National Association of Social Workers. Seth Kurzban, a clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, says that social workers are well positioned to shape the future of mental health care policy not just because of their sheer numbers in the workforce, but also because of their approach to care. 

“The pedagogy of social work of being a holistic, person-centered approach where we are focused not on a symptom, but rather on the person navigating their mental health and the society they live in, is a strength of our field and shows why social workers can really change and improve people’s lives,” Kurzban says.      

However, individuals outside of the mental health care field can also help to create a supportive environment. 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, which offers an Adult Mental Health and Wellness curriculum, encourages all advocates to share these images as we push for greater understanding and empathy for those living with a mental illness.     

View text-only versions of all infographics.

To learn more about the MSW@USC’s Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness, visit msw.usc.edu/academic/adult-mental-health-wellness

Feel free to share our infographics. When doing so, please include sourcing to “the MSW@USC, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s online Master of Social Work program.”