In any given year, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness. This means that someone you know – and potentially someone you love – is struggling with their mental health. Mental illness is widespread, yet it often is overlooked. It’s considered a “silent disease,” as many people struggle alone and do not ask for help. It is easy for symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions to go unnoticed or unaddressed. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that close to two-thirds of mental illnesses go untreated. Many cases even go undiagnosed.
How often does mental illness go untreated?
As stated above, two-thirds of people globally do not seek treatment for their mental health conditions. In the United States, over half (54 percent) of adults do not receive treatment for their mental illness. For those who do in fact receive treatment, the delay between symptom onset and first treatment is long, with an estimated 11 year gap. This means most people struggle with mental illness for over a decade before getting the help they need.
It’s important to note that these statistics are only relevant to people with known disorders. Too often, mental illness goes undiagnosed—and this is difficult to put a number on. It is unclear how many people are out there struggling with mental health symptoms, but unaware or unsure of how to get the proper support. We do know, however, that more than 50 percent of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime, which equates to more than 166 million Americans.
These are harrowing statistics, but there is good news. When mental health conditions are recognized and diagnosed, they are manageable and treatable.
Why does mental illness go undiagnosed?
Most mental illnesses begin during the teenage years, with the majority of cases emerging by age 24. Because mental illness typically affects young people, the symptoms often get masked as “hormonal” adolescent behavior, or mismarked as “just a phase” that teens are going through. For example, mood swings are common during adolescence, but also can be indicators of bipolar disorder. Sleeping late or lack of motivation may seem common in teenagers, but can also signal depression. Substance use is common in young adulthood, but can also be used to hide or cope with negative thoughts and feelings.
As you can see, it’s hard to distinguish the line between “typical” struggles and mental health symptoms.
This is just one of the many reasons why mental illness might go untreated or undiagnosed. Sometimes, however, the reason lies in a person being afraid, ashamed, or unsure of how to seek help. Some of the most common barriers to mental health treatment include, but are not limited to:
- The fear of what others might think
- Feeling too ashamed or embarrassed to get help
- Disbelief that one’s symptoms are “bad enough” to seek treatment
- Inability to put their career, school, or family obligations on hold
- Lack of insurance and unable to afford the costs of mental health care
- Lack of awareness that one is struggling with mental health and needs help
What is the impact of untreated mental illness?
Although untreated mental illness is a common occurrence, it is extremely dangerous. Mental health conditions that are left unaddressed can lead to life-threatening symptoms and poor quality of life. In addition, it can have a greater socioeconomic impact on the country as a whole. The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates that untreated mental illness costs the U.S. up to $300 billion every year due to losses in productivity.
Outside of the cost, however, let’s consider the immediate dangers of undiagnosed mental illness.
When mental illness is left untreated, symptoms are bound to get worse. What starts as mood swings can, over time, turn into violent behaviors, persistent sadness, and the unwillingness to live. A budding anxiety disorder can lead to social withdrawal and isolation, paranoia, and panic attacks. Unaddressed trauma can lead to disassociation, painful flashbacks, insomnia, and self-harm. These are just some of the many examples.
When mental illness symptoms are exacerbated over time, many people will attempt to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. This can spiral into dangerous substance abuse, addiction, and potentially overdose. Untreated mental illness can also trigger other risky behaviors like driving under the influence, unprotected sex, fighting and violence, and getting in trouble with the law.
Many untreated mental health disorders can also trigger suicidal thoughts and attempts at self-harm. In fact, roughly half of people who die by suicide had a known, diagnosed mental illness, according to the NAMI. This statistic is likely understated, as it does not account for undiagnosed mental health issues.
How can one detect the signs of an undiagnosed mental illness?
As previously mentioned, the symptoms of mental illness can be easily missed. Therefore, if you are concerned about your loved one or are a parent of a growing teen, it is important to pay attention. Knowing the signs of mental illness can put your loved one closer to a diagnosis – and closer to a productive and satisfying life. Remember, mental health disorders are treatable and manageable, with the right treatment plan in place. However, in order to receive treatment, you must know which signs to be aware of. Below, we describe common mental health disorders and symptoms that get overlooked:
- Low energy
- Poor concentration
- Trouble sleeping
- Not wanting to go outside or socialize
- Excessive worry and fear
- Physical ailments, such as nausea, palpitations, fatigue, and lightheadedness
- Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Lack of energy or excessive tiredness
- Little to no pleasure derived from once-loved activities
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Skipping class or a drop in grades
- Lack of self confidence
- Physical ailments, such as stomach aches, headaches, and body aches, without obvious cause
- Changes in eating patterns
- Attempts at self-harm and/or thoughts of suicide
- Extreme mood swings, including uncontrollable “highs” and “lows”
- Frequent disobedience, intense temper tantrums, or aggression
- Loss of touch with reality
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
- Disorganized behaviors and perception
- Difficulty sleeping
- Repeated, disturbing thoughts
- Obsessions over (what seem to be) meaningless or irrational things
- Ritualized behaviors that a person feels compelled to do
- Strong aversion to germs, dirt and dust, or even certain foods/environments
- Social isolation
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder:
- Recurring, disturbing flashbacks
- Repeated nightmares
- Inability to cope with difficult situations and stress effectively
- Isolation from loved ones or once-enjoyed activities
- Emotional detachment
- Persistent feelings of anxiety
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder:
- Struggles at school
- Inability to sit still or pay attention
- Difficulty completing tasks
- Excessive talking, often interrupting others
- Excessive movement and fidgeting
- Impulsiveness—acting without thinking
- Easily irritable or excitable
These are just some of the many signs and symptoms to watch for in your loved one, that could be red flags of an undiagnosed mental health condition. If your loved one is exhibiting any of these symptoms, do not hesitate to contact a mental health treatment specialist. It is never too early to seek therapy or support for a mental health condition – but it can be too late. Untreated mental illnesses can be life-threatening. As stated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Untreated mental health conditions can result in unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, and suicide, and poor quality of life.”
Take the steps to get your loved one on the right track. Take the steps to get your loved one the diagnosis that they deserve, and help them reach a path towards recovery. If you do not know where to begin, you may always contact Turnbridge for support. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider for adolescents and young adults. We are here for you.
Call 877-581-1793 today, or explore our treatment programs online.