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Many Americans Know Little about Mental Illnesses, Most Agree Knowing Warnings Signs Would Help, New Survey Shows

Arlington, Va. – A survey released by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found a significant lack of consumer knowledge and understanding about the warning signs, causes, and effective treatments for mental illnesses, such as depression. Almost half the public - 44 percent - report knowing only a little or almost nothing at all about mental illnesses. But asked whether they would benefit from knowing more about the warning signs of mental illness, 84 percent said yes.

"The consequences of this gap in knowledge are quite serious," said Carolyn Robinowitz, M.D., secretary-treasurer and 2006 president-elect of the APA. "About one-in-five Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder during any given year. This means few families are untouched by a mental illness. All families will benefit from understanding how these disorders can impact their lives."

The survey also showed that one-third of Americans mistakenly think that emotional or personal weakness is a major cause of mental illnesses and almost as many think old age is a major cause.

In fact, research shows the causes of mental illnesses are genetic and environmental factors, traumatic events, and other physical illnesses and injuries that have psychiatric side effects.

Robinowitz noted that advances in medical science have led to new and innovative treatments that help people live full and productive lives. "Today we know more than ever about how the brain works and how it affects overall health," Robinowitz said. "We need to make sure Americans get the benefit of these discoveries, and that means dispelling myths and providing the facts so that people get the help they need. We really can help Americans have healthy minds so they can enjoy healthy lives."

Indeed treatments for mental illnesses are effective. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recently found the rate of successful treatment for depression (70-80 percent) compares favorably to the rate for other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease (45-50 percent). The survey showed that many Americans do not understand that common mental illnesses can be successfully treated most of the time.

"Left untreated, mental illnesses can take an enormous toll on family life, the workplace, and society as a whole," Robinowitz said. Mental disorders comprise four of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. and the economic burden of depression alone was estimated at $83 billion in 2000.

Additional Findings

  • Psychiatrists are uniquely qualified to help: Eighty-seven percent say it is important to have a medical degree when it comes to being able to diagnose and treat mental illnesses.
  • Stigma persists: Thirty-one percent of adults surveyed say they would not seek treatment because they fear what others may think.
  • Mental health groups and the media can help with positive images: Almost two-thirds of adults surveyed say positive stories in the news media about mental illnesses and positive portrayals of people with mental illnesses in television programs and movies would have "quite a lot" or "some" influence in overcoming the stigma associated with mental illnesses.

"The most important point is for people to understand that mental illnesses are real and highly treatable," said Robinowitz. "Through the APA's 'Healthy Minds. Healthy Lives.' campaign, we are providing the most up-to-date, science-based information on common mental health concerns, warning signs, where to turn for help, and treatment options."

For professional help, people can turn to their primary care physician or a psychiatrist. As medical doctors, psychiatrists specialize in how the brain works. They are the only mental health practitioners who are trained in the biological workings of the mind and body.

May is Mental Health Month. Learn more by visiting the APA's consumer Web site at

From:  American Psychiatric Association News Release

Homepage illustration courtesy of TLC by TARA, Arlington, VA