About one in five adults in the United States suffered from a mental disorder during the past year, according to results of a national survey released today (Nov. 18).

Nearly 5 percent of those adults suffered from a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder , that substantially disrupted their daily life, according to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The finding highlights the need for a shift in attitude toward mental illness, because it affects such a wide swath of people, said Peter Delany, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality at SAMHSA.

"When you think about it, how many people work in your office? Someone has to be experiencing problems," Delany told MyHealthNewsDaily. "There are real consequences to not treating these conditions, but if we can get at them earlier, not only can we kind of save the individual from serious consequences personal as well as financial but also their families and the community."

The results also emphasize the need for all medical professionals to offer help to those who need it, he said.

"It's not a minimal issue, it's happening, and maybe this'll wake the public up that it's a real health issue," Delany said.

Mental problems aren't only prevalent in adults. Earlier this year, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that one in five teens had a mental disorder serious enough to disturb their everyday life.

Breaking down the results

The researchers surveyed 67,500 people around the country. Each person's mental health was placed into one of three categories: serious mental illness that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and affects daily life, major depressive episodes that lasted significant periods of time, and serious stress or anxiety that may not have been as serious as depression.

Here are some of the other key findings:

  • Nearly 20 percent of Americans with mental illness in the past year also had substance abuse problems.
  • About 3.7 percent of Americans about 8.4 million people said they had serious thoughts of suicide over the past year. About 2.2 million people made suicide plans, and 1 million attempted suicide.
  • Women were more likely to have a mental disorder than men 23.8 percent of women suffered from one, compared with 15.6 percent of men.
  • Young people ages 18 to 25 were more likely to have a mental illness than people ages 50 and older (30 percent compared with 13.7 percent).

Delany said the illnesses suffered by young people needed more attention.

"This is the group that's going to college, entering the work force, getting married, starting families," he said. "We really need to be aware that there's a high incidence [of mental disorders] among this group."

And the results highlight the need to develop intervention strategies specifically for the higher-risk groups such as women and young adults to try to ward off mental illness and treat their disorders early, Delany said.

The findings support a study presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in August, which showed the prevalence of severe depression has increased from 34 percent to 41 percent of college-age adults over the past decade.

Why the high numbers?

The findings of the survey are consistent with other estimates on the prevalence of mental health disorders, said Dr. Yeates Conwell, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Some people are inherently predisposed to mental illness, and when they are exposed to stressful life circumstances, that's when problems manifest , Conwell told MyHealthNewsDaily.

A down economy, unemployment problems and interpersonal troubles are all likely stressors in people's lives that could exacerbate or trigger mental illness, he said.

And the general attitude toward mental illness may be shifting, making people more likely to report their mental and emotional symptoms when answering survey questions, Conwell said.

The high numbers of young people who reported mental illness could reflect "the relatively greater comfort young people have in endorsing emotional and psychiatric problems," he said.

Still, the good news is that people are bringing attention to the fact that mental illness isn't an uncommon health problem, he added.

"We need to be open about it and creative about supporting people and getting the care that they need," Conwell said.