Sometimes Mental Illness Research is Depressing

One of the things I do in my work at the Treatment Advocacy Center is follow mental illness research by talking to scientists, reading professional journals and attending selected scientific meetings.

doris fullerSince part of our mission is supporting “the development of innovative treatments for and research into the causes of severe and persistent psychiatric illnesses,” this continuing education comes with the territory. Much of what I come across interesting, enlightening and thought-provoking

But as the parent of a young adult with a severe mental illness, studies like “Characteristics of adults with serious mental Illness in the United States household population in 2007 ” this month’s Psychiatric Services can be discouraging.

This particular paper was based on 23,393 responses to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, which was conducted as part of Healthy People 2020. This is a set of federal health goals that include the laudable ones of increasing the percentage of persons with serious mental illness who are employed and who receive mental health treatment.

Here are a few of the findings:

  • More than 2% of the respondents reported a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mania or psychosis. (Author Laura Ann Pratt, PhD said this statistic likely understates the actual prevalence of such disorders because people too ill to participate, without an official diagnosis or unwilling to admit their diagnosis were not represented.)
  • One-third of these respondents lived in poverty.
  • More than one-third had a history of homelessness or being jailed (another number the author believes is understated because individuals homeless, in jail or in another institution at the time of the survey could not participate).
  • Only one-half of this 2.2% were employed.
  • “Large health disparities” were found between individuals with and without serious mental illness, e.g., those with the disorders named above have higher rates of physical illness.

I don’t know about you, but none of this is part of the future I dreamed of for my daughter. In my darker hours (which is to say – in her darker hours), news like this quite frankly gets me down.

All the same, I want to know it.

For one thing, studies typically come in a glass I can turn upside down to get the half-full portion. In this case, that means that roughly two-thirds of those with disorders including my daughter’s are not impoverished and have never lived on the streets or been behind bars. Half are working. Much of the poor health is related to behaviors over which she has control, like smoking and exercising.

What’s more, treatment plays a significant role in poor outcomes. Fewer than two-thirds of the adults in the survey had seen a mental health professional in the previous year. One-quarter of them weren’t getting prescribed medications because of the cost.

My daughter has beaten those odds already. She sees a mental health professional regularly and has affordable access to prescribed meds. Because of this, she has a better chance of avoiding the hardships so many of the respondents to this survey suffer.

Personally, this gives me hope. Professionally, it leaves a lot of work to be done. Everyone with a psychotic disorder is more likely to be employed, to stay off the streets and out of jail and to be healthy when they are in treatment. They benefit, and so do their loved ones and communities. That’s one of the reasons the Treatment Advocacy Center remains dedicated to eliminating legal and other barriers to treatment. It’s good for all of us.

Doris A. Fuller
Executive Director of The Treatment Advocacy Center

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