Improve mental health through prevention and by ensuring access to appropriate, quality mental health services.
Mental health is a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with challenges. Mental health is essential to personal well-being, family and interpersonal relationships, and the ability to contribute to community or society.
Mental disorders are health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, and/or behavior that are associated with distress and/or impaired functioning. Mental disorders contribute to a host of problems that may include disability, pain, or death.
Mental illness is the term that refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders.
Why Is Mental Health Important?
Mental disorders are among the most common causes of disability. The resulting disease burden of mental illness is among the highest of all diseases. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in any given year, an estimated 13 million American adults (approximately 1 in 17) have a seriously debilitating mental illness.1, 2 Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, accounting for 25 percent of all years of life lost to disability and premature mortality.3 Moreover, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for the deaths of approximately 30,000 Americans each year.4, 5
Mental health and physical health are closely connected. Mental health plays a major role in people’s ability to maintain good physical health. Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, affect people’s ability to participate in health-promoting behaviors. In turn, problems with physical health, such as chronic diseases, can have a serious impact on mental health and decrease a person’s ability to participate in treatment and recovery.6
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Understanding Mental Health and Mental Disorders
The existing model for understanding mental health and mental disorders emphasizes the interaction of social, environmental, and genetic factors throughout the lifespan. In behavioral health, researchers identify:
- Risk factors, which predispose individuals to mental illness
- Protective factors, which protect them from developing mental disorders
Researchers now know that the prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral (MEB) disorders is inherently interdisciplinary and draws on a variety of different strategies.7
Over the past 20 years, research on the prevention of mental disorders has progressed. The understanding of how the brain functions under normal conditions and in response to stressors, combined with knowledge of how the brain develops over time, has been essential to that progress. The major areas of progress include evidence that:
The progress identified above has led to a stronger understanding of the importance of protective factors. A 2009 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report advocates for multidisciplinary prevention strategies at the community level that support the development of children in healthy social environments.8 In addition to advancements in the prevention of mental disorders, there continues to be steady progress in treating mental disorders as new drugs and stronger evidence-based outcomes become available.
Emerging Issues in Mental Health and Mental Disorders
New mental health issues have emerged among some special populations, such as:
- Veterans who have experienced physical and mental trauma
- People in communities with large-scale psychological trauma caused by natural disasters
- Older adults, as the understanding and treatment of dementia and mood disorders continues to improve
As the Federal Government begins to implement the health reform legislation, it will give attention to providing services for individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders, including new opportunities for access to and coverage for treatment and prevention services.
1Kessler RC, Chiu W, Demler O, et al. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.
2US Census Bureau, Population Division. US Census Bureau population estimates by demographic characteristics: National population estimates—characteristics. Table 2 (NC-EST2004-02): Annual estimates of the population by selected age groups and sex for the United States: April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2004; A18. Washington: US Census Bureau; 2005 Jun 9.
3The World Health Organization (WHO). The world health report 2004: Changing history. Annex Table 3: Burden of disease in DALYs by cause, sex, and mortality stratum in WHO regions, Estimates for 2002; A126-A127. Geneva: WHO; 2004.
4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIP). Web-based injury statistics query and reporting system (WISQARS) [Internet]. Atlanta: CDC; 2010. Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/wisqars.
5National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH strategic plan (revised 2008) [Internet]. Bethesda, MD: NIMH; 2008 [cited 2010 May 6]. Available from:
6Lando J, Marshall Williams S, Sturgis S, et al. A logic model for the integration of mental health into chronic disease prevention and health promotion. Prev Chronic Dis. 2006 April;3(2):A61.
7National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth, and Young Adults. Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities [Internet]. O’Connell ME, Boat T, Warner KE, editors. Washington: National Academies Press; 2009. 562 p. Available from: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2009/Preventing-Mental-Emotional-and-Behavioral-Disorders-Among-Young-People-Progress-and-Possibilities.aspx. This book, which can be read online for free, provides the most current evidence on preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people.
8National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth, and Young Adults. Preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders among young people: Progress and possibilities [Internet]. O’Connell ME, Boat T, Warner KE, editors. Washington: National Academies Press; 2009. p 18. Available from: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2009/Preventing-Mental-Emotional-and-Behavioral-Disorders-Among-Young-People-Progress-and-Possibilities.aspx
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