One American adult in six takes antidepressants, anxiety meds, or anti-psychotic medications. So can we just start talking about it openly already?
Even though there's been a lot of buzz about destigmatizing mental health issues lately—everyone from Demi Lovato to Selena Gomez has been open about their ongoing struggles—we still have a long way to go in terms of normalizing seeking help for mental disorders. That's why we were interested to see new research that appeared earlier this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, which examined exactly how many people in the United States are taking antidepressants, anxiety meds, and anti-psychotic medications. (Not ready to try antidepressants? Here are nine other ways to fight depression.)
The researchers who undertook the project noted that there were some existing statistics on psychiatric medication use in the U.S., but they were fairly broad and didn't take into account much information other than how many people were taking them. For this study, researchers focused on finding out which categories of medications people are taking and exploring how frequently members of different demographic groups take them based on age, sex, and race. In order to do their research, the authors utilized a 2013 survey that asked people various questions about their medical expenditures. Overall, they found that 16.7 percent of 242 million survey respondents reported one or more of these types of psychiatric medication. From this, the researchers concluded that approximately one in six American adults were taking these meds in 2013, with antidepressants being the most common, followed by anti-anxiety meds and then anti-psychotics. That's a pretty significant chunk of the population.
While that might seem like a suspiciously high number, especially considering that some research indicates certain medications, like antidepressants, may be overprescribed, one expert believes these numbers are accurately representative of what's going on in the general population of the U.S. "There are this many people suffering from psychiatric illness," says Dion Metzger, M.D., a psychiatrist practicing in Georgia. "Up to one in four people suffer from some form of mental illness symptoms and/or have been in mental health treatment." So if one in four people are suffering, why are only one in six on meds? "We see a lower percentage taking psychiatric medications because there are people who might be getting treatment solely via therapy," she explains. Plus, there are many people who don't seek treatment despite having symptoms of mental illness. (FYI, misdiagnosis of depression can seriously mess with your brain.)
This idea of people not seeking treatment could play into an important factor acknowledged by the research, which is that certain groups were WAY more likely than others to be taking these medications. For example, 20.8 percent of white respondents reported taking psychiatric meds, whereas racial minority groups had much lower rates of usage, ranging from 4.8 percent to 9.7 percent. Clearly, this paints a picture about the access that various groups have to adequate mental health care, which is something that needs to be addressed ASAP.
One of the major reasons people don't seek help when they need it is the stigma surrounding mental illness. Another big obstacle? "People believe they can overcome mental illness on their own," says Metzger. "They see their depressive or anxiety symptoms as a weakness or character flaw rather than an illness. This 'just tough it out' way of thinking is actually harmful because it stops people from getting the treatment they need." Plus, a smaller issue can snowball into something much larger if it's not given the proper attention. "I advise people to seek treatment for mental illness the same way they would for physical illnesses, because in reality, it can be just as paralyzing to your life if left untreated," she notes. Perhaps this point of view is the key to getting mental illness to be treated with the seriousness and acceptability that it deserves: It's just like any other illness, and it needs to be treated as such.