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Redefining ‘Normal’: Study Finds Most People Will Have a Mental Health Issue
If you’ve been skipping down the primrose path of life, unscathed by anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue, a new study finds you’re the unusual one.
The vast majority of people will experience a mental health struggle at least once over their lifespan, according to a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. The research suggests that those of us who have good mental health throughout our lives are the exception. The scientists hope the findings will help combat the stigma that having a mental illness is a weird thing, a sign of weakness, even shameful, as well as increase treatment and prevention efforts.
The research followed nearly 1,000 people in Dunedin, New Zealand, from age 11 to 38. The participants were assessed every few years over the nearly three decades for common mental disorders. At the study’s conclusion, only 17% of the participants had managed to reach middle age without experiencing a bout of mental illness. To provide a “check” on their findings, the scientists also interviewed “informants” (family members, best friends and partners identified by the participants) to find out whether they saw any outward signs of mental illness in the study subjects, such as, “Feels depressed, miserable, sad or unhappy,” “Has unreasonable worries or fears,” “Has alcohol problems, marijuana or other drug problems,” or “Talks about suicide.”
Mental Illness Touches Everyone
Of course, the simple math reveals that 83% of us, the “normal” ones, will have a significant struggle with our emotions at some point in our lifetime. For about half of that 83%, the study found that the problem proved to be transitory (short-term). The remainder experienced a chronic mental health disorder, such as major depression, bipolar disorder and/or substance abuse. And if you’re fortunate enough to be among the 17% of people who have gone unscathed by such an illness, surely you know someone in the other category.
How many of us will open up about our struggles and seek help is a whole other story. Here in the United States, about 56% of adults with a mental health issue still do not receive treatment, according to the nonprofit organization Mental Health America (MHA). The reasons for this vary from the stigma associated with seeking help to a lack of insurance coverage or deductibles so high that care becomes unaffordable. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa are the states with the highest prevalence of mental illness — which includes adults with any mental illness and those with a substance use disorder — and the lowest rates of care.
“Once again, our report shows that too many Americans are suffering, and far too many are not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president of MHA, in a news release. “Mental illness touches everyone. We must improve access to care and treatments, and we need to put a premium on early identification and early intervention for everyone with mental health concerns.”
Don’t Put Off Getting Help
The key thing to remember from the New Zealand research is that mental health problems are commonplace and that we need to treat them like any other chronic medical issue such as diabetes, cancer or heart disease. And the sooner a sufferer takes action, the better. Letting a mental health problem fester in the hopes that things will eventually turn around can be a recipe for disaster. In fact, the CDC reports that if not effectively treated, “depression is likely to become a chronic disease. Just experiencing one episode of depression places an individual at a 50% risk for experiencing another episode, and further increases the chances of having more depression episodes in the future.”
To be sure, hitting a psychological rough patch doesn’t mean you’ll develop a full-blown disorder, but don’t ignore the signs and symptoms of mental illness or delay seeking help if need be. Whether you seek treatment from an in-house facility, as an outpatient or by joining a self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous, the sooner you reach out for help the better. No one would blame someone for having cancer, and the same should (and must) hold true for mental illness.