Understanding Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through will power and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence.

Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. The most serious and disabling conditions affect five to 10 million adults (approximatly three to five percent of all adults).

Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability (lost years of productive life) in North America, in Europe and, increasingly, in the world. By 2020, major depressive illness will be the leading cause of disability in the world for women and children.

Mental illnesses strike individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.

Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives. The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion each year in the United States.

The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals experience significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.

Early identification and treatment are of vital importance. When people get the treatment they need early, recovery is accelerated, and the brain is protected from further harm related to the course of the illness.

Stigma erodes understanding that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. Our society has allowed stigma and a now-unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down.