50 Percent of Mentally Ill Adults Are Untreated

By Katharine Paljug  @kpaljug
January 06, 2017

Twenty percent of American adults suffer from mental illness, and most of them aren’t receiving treatment.

In October of 2016, the nonprofit organization Mental Health America (MHA) released its annual report on the state of mental illness and treatment in the United States. The conclusions drawn in the report paint a serious picture.


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The state of mental health in America

One in five adults in the United States, or nearly 40 million Americans, suffers from a mental health condition. Even worse, over 50 percent of mentally ill adults in the U.S. do not receive the treatment they need to manage their conditions. These conditions can range from depression and anxiety to severe psychosis.

This is in spite of the fact, MHA found, that healthcare reform has increased the number of adults who have health insurance and access to mental health services in many parts of the country. The report ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine where mentally ill adults are most and least able to access the treatment they need. The states with the worst patient access to mental health services were primarily located in the Deep South: Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. 

But even in Vermont, the state ranked as having the best access to mental health services, over 40 percent of adults with mental illness were untreated.

The impact of mental illness

If left untreated, even common mental illness like depression can severely impact a person’s quality of life, leading to difficulty functioning at work, damage to personal relationships, and overall poor health. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those with mental illness are at a higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer; are more likely to be smokers or abuse alcohol; and are at risk for self-harm and suicide. 

They can also pose a danger to those around them: individuals suffering from mental illness are 2 to 6 times more likely to injure others, either through violent behavior or unintentional behavior such as car accidents. And the MHA found that less access to mental health care correlated to higher rates of incarceration. Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi had the highest levels of untreated mentally ill adults; they also had a combined 57,000 mentally ill adults in their prisons and jails. 

“Political environments in states do seem to matter,” says Paul Gionfriddo, the president and CEO of Mental Health America, in a press release from MHA. “Those that invest more in mental health clearly have to throw away less money on jails and prisons.” 


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Getting help for mental illness

Many states, according to the MHA’s report, have high rates of untreated mentally ill adults due to a lack of mental health professionals. In states with the lowest levels of workforce participation, for example, there is only an average of 1 mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) for every 1,000 adults. 

Even in states with more widely available services, adults may still be unsure how to find treatment options, or hesitant to use them because of the lingering stigma against mental illness

But treating mental illness can drastically improve both individuals and communities. The CDC reports that treating mental illness can lead to longer life expectancies, stronger personal relationships, and fewer chronic diseases. The World Health Organization also suggests that improving access to mental health services can reduce rates of incarceration among the mentally ill and lower the recidivism rates of those in the prison system. 

“Mental illness touches everyone,” Gionfriddo says. “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.”

If you have health insurance, you can talk to your provider about mental health treatment services. The CDC and National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide a variety of resources for individuals with mental illness, both through treatment and community support. 

Even if you don’t have insurance or are on a tight budget, treatment options are available. You can visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America to learn about your options, including federally funded health centers that are intended for low-income individuals. 


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April 06, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA