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Major U.S. study finds mental illness still widespread despite new drugs


Almost 50 percent of Americans will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives, a new study has found, and most will not receive the proper treatment.

Researchers led by Harvard epidemiologist Ronald C. Kessler fanned out across the country to assess the rates of mental illness in dozens of U.S. communities in a survey conducted from 2001 to 2003. Thousands answered questions about their thoughts and behavior, in a detailed assessment called the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth revision).

Kessler and colleagues found that 18 percent had a serious anxiety disorder; 10 percent depression or bipolar illness; 9 percent an impulse disorder; and 4 percent a severe problem with drugs or alcohol. One in 5 had a disorder classified as serious.

In one year alone, 20 percent qualified as being diagnosed for a psychiatric illness, although many were mild disorders that did not disrupt life.

"This is depressing," said Kessler, who directed the large study, published in a series of papers this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The numbers of people with mental illness is too high and the care they are receiving isn't good enough, he said.

"These are well-done studies," added Myrna Weissman, an epidemiologist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, who, along with the late Dr. Gerald Klerman, conducted the first mental illness surveys in the general population in the 1980s. Their study was conducted before the latest generation of antidepressants.

Kessler and his colleagues also found that the first symptoms of mental illness began earlier than expected, generally during the teen years. "These are disorders of youth," he said, adding that the average age that anxiety hit was 9; depression, the early 20s; and impulse disorders, 15. "They are impaired before they have a chance to get their adult life on track."

Kessler's team has interviewed more than 50,000 Americans. It also found that 45 percent of those with psychiatric symptoms qualified for more than one disorder.

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