Many Americans Know Little About Mental Illness

Pharmacy Times
Volume 0

Pharmacists can help educate patients about effective treatments for mental illness and improve Americans' understanding of this serious health problem.

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

A poll taken by the AmericanPsychiatric Association onAmericans? understanding ofmentalillness has found that 44%report knowing ?little? or ?almostnothing? about mental illness.1 Thissurvey and others continue to findhefty information gaps regarding people?sunderstanding of mental illnessand its treatment (Box).

On the positive side, the situation isimproving. Ten years ago, only 38% ofAmericans viewed depression as a seriousmedical issue; today, that number is72%.2 Yet, these perceptions of mentalillness as a serious health problem lagbehind those of other illnesses, like diabetes(96%) and cancer (97%).

Defying the Stereotypes

Many Americans hold stereotypical impressionsof mental illness, such as thebelief that mental illness is associatedwith violent behavior. Research indicatesthe number of violent acts committed bythose with mental illness is similar to thenumber committed by the general public.Unfortunately, extended media attentionon incidents that involve violence in tandemwith mental illness continue to fuelstigma and fear.

Another damaging stereotype is thebelief that mental illness results frompersonal weakness: 57% of Americansview substance abuse, and 46% view suicide,as stemming from weakness.2 Themedia are quick to note the latest findingson diabetes, hypertension, or obesity,but rarely give comparable coverageto mental illness. Similarly, advertisementsabound for antidepressants, butscant attention is paid to the pathophysiologyof depression. Perceptions andbeliefs help solidify attitudes and behaviors:91% of Americans are comfortablehaving friends with mental illness, comparedwith 98% who are comfortable withfriends with cancer or diabetes.2 Comfortlevels plummet for teachers with mentalillness (20%), or elected officials (29%).These trends can be reversed when mediaand professionals engage in concertedpublic education campaigns.

Although mental health advocatesgalvanize resources for improved understandingand acceptance of mentalillness, everyone agrees that popularmedia can help shape more positive,accepting attitudes and improve thepublic?s understanding and acceptanceof mental illness. Professionals, too,need to examine their own attitudes andlanguage used when it comes to mentalillness. Terms like ?looney,? ?nuts,?and ?wacko? pepper everyday language.Consider adopting this guideline: if youwould not use the term in front of someonewho is mentally ill, then the termshould not be used at all.

Final Thought

Today, numerous treatment options existfor mental illness?and proper treatmentworks. Admittedly, finding the right drugregimen is a combination of scienceand clinical skill. Unfortunately, 29% ofsurvey respondents indicate they wouldnot seek professional help, mistakenlybelieving effective treatments do notexist.1 In these instances, pharmacistscan 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.


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

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