Many Americans Know Little About Mental Illness

MARCH 01, 2009
Guido R. Zanni, PhD

Dr. Zanni is a psychologist and health systems specialist based in Alexandria, Virginia.

A poll taken by the American Psychiatric Association on Americans? understanding of mental illness has found that 44% report knowing ?little? or ?almost nothing? about mental illness.1 This survey and others continue to find hefty information gaps regarding people?s understanding of mental illness and its treatment (Box).

On the positive side, the situation is improving. Ten years ago, only 38% of Americans viewed depression as a serious medical issue; today, that number is 72%.2 Yet, these perceptions of mental illness as a serious health problem lag behind those of other illnesses, like diabetes (96%) and cancer (97%).

Defying the Stereotypes

Many Americans hold stereotypical impressions of mental illness, such as the belief that mental illness is associated with violent behavior. Research indicates the number of violent acts committed by those with mental illness is similar to the number committed by the general public. Unfortunately, extended media attention on incidents that involve violence in tandem with mental illness continue to fuel stigma and fear.

Another damaging stereotype is the belief that mental illness results from personal weakness: 57% of Americans view substance abuse, and 46% view suicide, as stemming from weakness.2 The media are quick to note the latest findings on diabetes, hypertension, or obesity, but rarely give comparable coverage to mental illness. Similarly, advertisements abound for antidepressants, but scant attention is paid to the pathophysiology of depression. Perceptions and beliefs help solidify attitudes and behaviors: 91% of Americans are comfortable having friends with mental illness, compared with 98% who are comfortable with friends with cancer or diabetes.2 Comfort levels plummet for teachers with mental illness (20%), or elected officials (29%). These trends can be reversed when media and professionals engage in concerted public education campaigns.

Although mental health advocates galvanize resources for improved understanding and acceptance of mental illness, everyone agrees that popular media can help shape more positive, accepting attitudes and improve the public?s understanding and acceptance of mental illness. Professionals, too, need to examine their own attitudes and language used when it comes to mental illness. Terms like ?looney,? ?nuts,? and ?wacko? pepper everyday language. Consider adopting this guideline: if you would not use the term in front of someone who is mentally ill, then the term should not be used at all.

Final Thought

Today, numerous treatment options exist for mental illness?and proper treatment works. Admittedly, finding the right drug regimen is a combination of science and clinical skill. Unfortunately, 29% of survey respondents indicate they would not seek professional help, mistakenly believing effective treatments do not exist.1 In these instances, pharmacists can become agents of change.

Did You Know?

  • Americans underestimate the prevalence of mental illness, believing that only 10% of Americans are affected; in reality, 20% have a diagnosable condition.
  • 45% of Americans state they are not well informed on the warning signs of mental illness.
  • 33% believe emotional and personal weaknesses contribute to mental illness, with 24% believing that personal strength can overcome many problems.
  • 57% of patients with mental illness report they have a caregiver who helps them to manage their condition.
  • Only 67% feel comfortable sharing their experiences with depression; percentages are lower for substance abuse (62%) and bipolar and schizophrenia disorders (58%).
  • 27% of patients with mental illness have difficulty accessing treatment.
  • 74% of patients with mental illness have comorbid conditions; the most common ones include high cholesterol, hypertension, respiratory problems, and diabetes.
  • 69% of people with schizophrenia report that they have discontinued their medication because of adverse side effects.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. Fact sheet: Consumer Survey on Mental Health. Accessed February 9, 2008.
  2. Mental Health America. 10-year Retrospective Study Shows Progress in American Attitudes About Depression and Other Mental Health Issues. Accessed February 8, 2008.
  3. Mental Health America. Communicating About Health: A Mental Health America Survey of People with Schizophrenia and Providers. Accessed February 9, 2008.