It is likely, however, that the prevalence rates in this paper are underestimated, because the sample was drawn from listings of households and did not include homeless and institutionalized (nursing homes, group homes) populations. In addition, the study did not assess some rare and clinically complex psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, because a household survey is not the most efficient study design to identify and evaluate those disorders.
Failure and Delay in Initial Treatment Contact
The study documents the long delays between the onset of a mental disorder and the first treatment contact, as well as the accumulated burden and hazards of untreated mental disorders.
These pervasive delays in getting treatment tend to occur for nearly all mental disorders, though they vary according to specific diagnostic categories. The median delay across disorders is nearly a decade; the longest delays are 20-23 years, for social phobia and separation anxiety disorders. This is possibly due to the relatively early age of onset and fears of therapy that involve social interactions.
Shorter delays between onset of disorder and treatment seeking — still a protracted 6-8 years — are seen for mood disorders, and are likely attributable to public awareness campaigns, the marketing of newer therapies directly to consumers, and expanded insurance coverage.
While approximately 80 percent of all people in the U.S. with a mental disorder eventually seek treatment, there are public health implications from such long delays in treatment. Untreated psychiatric disorders can lead to more frequent and more severe episodes, and are more likely to become resistant to treatment. In addition, early-onset mental disorders that are left untreated are associated with school failure, teenage childbearing, unstable employment, early marriage, and marital instability and violence.
“The pattern appears to be that the earlier in life the disorder begins, the slower an individual is to seek therapy, and the more persistent the illness,” said Dr. Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “It’s unfortunate that those who most need treatment are the least likely to get it.”
Treating cases early could prevent enormous disability, before the illness becomes more severe, and before co-occurring mental illnesses develop, which only become more difficult to treat as they accumulate, according to the researchers.
Severity and Comorbidity of Mental Disorders
The second paper reports that even though mental disorders are widespread throughout the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in those with a severe disorder — about 6 percent. A “serious” disorder involves a substantial limitation in daily activities or work disability, or a suicide attempt with serious lethal intent, or psychosis. The serious group reported a mean of 88.3 days — nearly 3 months of the year — when they were unable to carry out their normal daily activities.
Unfortunately, say the researchers, individuals with one mental disorder are at a high risk for also having a second one (comorbidity). Nearly half (45 percent) of those with one mental disorder met criteria for two or more disorders, with severity strongly related to comorbidity. This finding supports the suggestion by a growing portion of researchers that the boundaries between some diagnostic categories may be less discrete than previously believed.