Note: This article is excerpted from Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission.
For the first couple of decades of Mom's full-blown illness and my family's crisis, one of the greatest catalysts to our pain was the sense that we were alone. Because we suffered mostly silently, we didn't find other people who were suffering in the same way. And because those other suffering people were silent too, we all thought we were the only ones. Now I know better. We weren't even close to alone.
More Common than You Think
Most people are surprised to learn that mental illness is incredibly common. In fact, mental disorders are the number-one cause of disability in North America. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and other experts, about one in four adults—a little more than 25 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Yes, one in four. That equates to around 50 million people in the United States. And that's only in a given year. Because many mental illnesses (like depressive episodes) are short-term and not chronic, a higher percentage of people are affected by a mental illness at some point in their lives.
Serious and chronic mental illness is less common but still present among 6 percent of the population, or 1 in 17 adults. That's almost 12 million people in the United States. Those mental illnesses considered "serious" are major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.
Other mental illnesses, while not as serious as those called clinically "serious" by psychiatrists, still must be taken seriously. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines mental illnesses as "medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning" and "often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life." All mental illness, by definition, impairs a person's basic functioning and disrupts the kind of social connections God created us to enjoy (see Genesis 2:18-23; Colossians 3:12-15; 1 John 4:7-12).
Antipsychotics are now the top-selling class of drugs in the United States. This is because of their growing use not only to treat serious psychotic disorders but also to address a broader array of problems. These drugs have powerful side effects, which contribute to the reluctance of people who need them to take them consistently. These side effects themselves can impair a person's functioning as powerfully as an illness can.
What about those under the age of 18? Many people think of mental illness as an adult problem because such illnesses in children are not as well documented and well known as they are in adults. People hesitate to diagnose—and thereby label—children, who are still forming and who may "grow out of" a mental illness. Perhaps another reason is that, because our bodies begin to break down as we age, we tend to associate illness in general with adulthood. And we find it especially tragic when people in the "prime of life" go through serious suffering.
But the nature of much mental illness makes it different from most other disabling disease. The National Institute of Mental Health calls mental disorders "the chronic diseases of the young." Many of these disorders begin early in life. According to one of the institute's press releases: