Mental illnesses are a diverse group of conditions that affect the brain—and in turn, the rest of the body—in numerous and varied ways. Just as diseases of other types differ in severity and in the ways in which they affect a person, mental health disorders have varying degrees and shades of impact. For some, mental health challenges are manageable through therapy and healthy habits such as sufficient sleep or regular exercise; but for others, a mental illness completely overturns every aspect of life.
Mental health conditions that dramatically alter an individual’s life are referred to as serious mental illnesses, also sometimes called major mental illnesses. The National Institute of Mental Health defines a serious mental illness as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
Common serious mental illnesses include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and major depression. Many cause psychosis and other symptoms that make it extremely difficult for those living with these conditions to hold steady jobs or manage a home, as well as to form and maintain relationships with others. As a result, these disorders are not only life-altering but isolating.
According to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 5.6% of American adults had lived with a serious mental illness in the past year—approximately a fourth of the 21% adults who had dealt with any type of mental health condition. For the one in 20 individuals who must navigate the complex challenges brought about by these disorders, mental health issues aren’t just a source of discomfort or something to open up about on social media; they’re illnesses that severely impair the ability to function.
Below are five things to know about the ways that serious mental illnesses alter the lives of more than 14 million American adults.
1. Access to treatment is a serious need.
According to the SAMHSA survey, nearly half of individuals living with serious mental illnesses stated that they perceived an unmet need for mental health services; and over a third had not received any mental health treatment in the past year. While the cost of care was the most commonly cited barrier, many also stated that they weren’t sure where to go for services or believed they could manage their conditions without treatment.
2. Lack of awareness prevents many from seeking care.
A common symptom of major mental illnesses is anosognosia: an inability to perceive or fully understand the severity of one’s condition. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, approximately 50% of individuals living with schizophrenia and 40% of individuals dealing with bipolar disorder experience anosognosia, and those living with other serious mental illnesses may experience it as well. This lack of awareness causes many to resist treatment as they cannot understand their need for it.
3. Serious mental illness increases the risk of substance abuse.
The SAMHSA survey found that those who’d experienced serious mental illness in the past year were significantly more likely to have used illicit drugs: 48% of those dealing with these disorders had used illegal substances in the past year, compared to just 17% of those who hadn’t lived with a mental health condition. In addition, those suffering from major mental illnesses were also more likely to have engaged in binge drinking and to have used tobacco and nicotine products. Lack of access to treatment often plays a major role in dual diagnoses of mental illness and substance abuse.
4. Many who suffer from serious mental illnesses also face homelessness.
The many challenges of dealing with a major mental illness, including poverty, unemployment and stigma, are a major contributing factor to homelessness. According to the 2021 Dallas and Collin Counties Point in Time (PIT) Count, 24% of those who were homeless reported living with a serious mental illness—a much higher percentage than among the general population.
5. Many receive jail time instead of treatment.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more people dealing with serious mental illnesses are living in America’s jails and prisons than are receiving treatment in psychiatric facilities. Due to the shortage of qualified mental health care providers and the hurdles that many individuals face in seeking treatment, many who live with major mental health disorders don’t receive any care, which puts them at higher risk for run-ins with the law. As a result, people dealing with these illnesses are booked into jails 2 million times each year. And, while they’re incarcerated, few receive the medications or therapy that could help them pursue stability.
Due to stigma and the isolating nature of serious mental illnesses, many who deal with these conditions lack a supportive network of people who can come alongside them. But, at the Well Community, men and women who suffer from life-altering mental health struggles find friendship and acceptance from others who understand and care as well as assistance in accessing resources that can help them better navigate the challenges of illnesses that have overturned their lives.
Your gift will help the Well Community come alongside those living with serious mental illnesses, providing support, resources and community.