Mental Illness Is Surprisingly Mainstream

For the first couple of decades of Mom’s full-blown illness and my family’s crisis, one of the greatest catalysts to our pain was the sense that we were alone. Because we suffered mostly silently, we didn’t find other people who were suffering in the same way. And because they were silent too, we all thought we were the only ones. Now I know better. We weren’t even close to alone.

Most people are surprised to learn that mental illness is incredibly common. In fact, mental disorders are the number-one cause of disability in North America. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and other experts, about one in four adults–a little more than 25 percent of Americans ages 18 and older–suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Yes, one in four. That equates to around 50 million people in the United States. And that’s only in a given year. Because many mental illnesses (like depressive episodes) are short-term and not chronic, a higher percentage of people are affected by a mental illness at some point in their lives.

Serious and chronic mental illness is less common, but still present among 6 percent of the population, or 1 in 17 adults. That’s almost 12 million people in the U.S. Those mental illnesses considered “serious” are major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder.

Other mental illnesses, while not as serious as those called clinically “serious” by psychiatrists, still must be taken seriously. The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illnesses as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning” and “often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” All mental illness, by definition, impairs a person’s basic functioning and disrupts the kind of social connections God created us to enjoy (Genesis 2:18-23; Colossians 3:12-15; 1 John 4:7-12).

Antipsychotics are now the top-selling class of drugs in the U.S. This is because of their growing use not only to treat serious psychotic disorders but also to address a broader array of problems. These drugs have powerful side effects, which contribute to the reluctance of people who need them to take them consistently. And these side effects themselves can impair a person’s functioning as powerfully as an illness can.

What about those under the age of 18? Many people think of mental illness as an adult problem because such illnesses in children are not as well-documented and well-known as they are for adults. People hesitate to diagnose, and therefore label, children, who are still forming and who may develop out of a mental illness. Perhaps another reason is that because our bodies begin to break down as we age, we tend to associate illness in general with adulthood. And we find it especially tragic when people in the “prime of life” go through serious suffering.

The nature of much mental illness, though, makes it different from most other disabling disease. The National Institute of Mental Health calls mental disorders “the chronic diseases of the young.” Many of these disorders begin early in life. “Half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14; three quarters have begun by age 24 . . . For example, anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in late adolescence, and substance abuse in the early 20’s. Unlike heart disease or most cancers, young people with mental disorders suffer disability when they are in the prime of life, when they would normally be the most productive.”

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, every year an estimated 20 percent of children in the U.S. are at least mildly impaired by some type of diagnosable mental illness. And about 5 to 9 percent of children ages 9 to 17 have “serious emotional disturbance.” That’s between 3 and 7 million children in serious trouble–and millions of families in crisis.

Nearly everyone is touched by mental illness–directly or indirectly–at some point. From the millions of people with diagnosable mental illness, the suffering extends to parents, children, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and church members. If your church is typical of the U.S. population, on any given Sunday on in four adults and 1 in 5 children sitting around you are suffering from a mental illness. Many of them are under the influence of those powerful antipsychotic drugs and their side effects.


This post was excerpted from Chapter 2 of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. If you want to read more about mental illness and how we can all help, you can find the book here.


Taken from Troubled Minds by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2013 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

1 Comment
  1. Too much stress in our lives contribute greatly to the mental disturbances we experience. Whenever we cannot make ends meet as adults we feel helpless and sometimes useless. This could trigger chemical changes in our brains bringing about disturbances that must be corrected medically. Occultic activity too could contribute to mental problems because the occult is a real spiritual world that exposes participants to fantasy and unattainable ideals.

© 2013 Amy Simpson.