Chapter 1
Introduction and Themes

Overarching Themes

The Science Base of the Report

Overview of the Report’s Chapters

Chapter Conclusions

Preparation of the Report


Chapter Conclusions

Chapter 2: The Fundamentals of Mental Health and Mental Illness

The past 25 years have been marked by several discrete, defining trends in the mental health field. These have included:

  1. The extraordinary pace and productivity of scientific research on the brain and behavior;
  2. The introduction of a range of effective treatments for most mental disorders;
  3. A dramatic transformation of our society’s approaches to the organization and financing of mental health care; and
  4. The emergence of powerful consumer and family movements.

Scientific Research. The brain has emerged as the central focus for studies of mental health and mental illness. New scientific disciplines, technologies, and insights have begun to weave a seamless picture of the way in which the brain mediates the influence of biological, psychological, and social factors on human thought, behavior, and emotion in health and in illness. Molecular and cellular biology and molecular genetics, which are complemented by sophisticated cognitive and behavioral sciences, are preeminent research disciplines in the contemporary neuroscience of mental health. These disciplines are affording unprecedented opportunities for “bottom-up” studies of the brain. This term refers to research that is examining the workings of the brain at the most fundamental levels. Studies focus, for example, on the complex neurochemical activity that occurs within individual nerve cells, or neurons, to process information; on the properties and roles of proteins that are expressed, or produced, by a person’s genes; and on the interaction of genes with diverse environmental influences. All of these activities now are understood, with increasing clarity, to underlie learning, memory, the experience of emotion, and, when these processes go awry, the occurrence of mental illness or a mental health problem.

Equally important to the mental health field is “top-down” research; here, as the term suggests, the aim is to understand the broader behavioral context of the brain’s cellular and molecular activity and to learn how individual neurons work together in well-delineated neural circuits to perform mental functions.

Effective Treatments. As information accumulates about the basic workings of the brain, it is the task of translational research to transfer new knowledge into clinically relevant questions and targets of research opportunity—to discover, for example, what specific properties of a neural circuit might make it receptive to safer, more effective medications. To elaborate on this example, theories derived from knowledge about basic brain mechanisms are being wedded more closely to brain imaging tools such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) that can observe actual brain activity. Such a collaboration would permit investigators to monitor the specific protein molecules intended as the “targets” of a new medication to treat a mental illness or, indeed, to determine how to optimize the effect on the brain of the learning achieved through psychotherapy.

In its entirety, the new “integrative neuroscience” of mental health offers a way to circumvent the antiquated split between the mind and the body that historically has hampered mental health research. It also makes it possible to examine scientifically many of the important psychological and behavioral theories regarding normal development and mental illness that have been developed in years past. The unswerving goal of mental health research is to develop and refine clinical treatments as well as preventive interventions that are based on an understanding of specific mechanisms that can contribute to or lead to illness but also can protect and enhance mental health.

Mental health clinical research encompasses studies that involve human participants, conducted, for example, to test the efficacy of a new treatment. A noteworthy feature of contemporary clinical research is the new emphasis being placed on studying the effectiveness of interventions in actual practice settings. Information obtained from such studies increasingly provides the foundation for services research concerned with the cost, cost-effectiveness, and “deliverability” of interventions and the design—including economic considerations—of service delivery systems.

Organization and Financing of Mental Health Care. Another of the defining trends has been the transformation of the mental illness treatment and mental health services landscapes, including increased reliance on primary health care and other human service providers. Today, the U.S. mental health system is multifaceted and complex, comprising the public and private sectors, general health and specialty mental health providers, and social services, housing, criminal justice, and educational agencies. These agencies do not always function in a coordinated manner. Its configuration reflects necessary responses to a broad array of factors including reform movements, financial incentives based on who pays for what kind of services, and advances in care and treatment technology. Although the hybrid system that exists today serves diverse functions well for many people, individuals with the most complex needs and the fewest financial resources often find the system fragmented and difficult to use. A challenge for the Nation in the near-term future is to speed the transfer of new evidence-based treatments and prevention interventions into diverse service delivery settings and systems, while ensuring greater coordination among these settings and systems.

Consumer and Family Movements. The emergence of vital consumer and family movements promises to shape the direction and complexion of mental health programs for many years to come. Although divergent in their historical origins and philosophy, organizations representing consumers and family members have promoted important, often overlapping goals and have invigorated the fields of research as well as treatment and service delivery design. Among the principal goals shared by much of the consumer movement are to overcome stigma and prevent discrimination in policies affecting persons with mental illness; to encourage self-help and a focus on recovery from mental illness; and to draw attention to the special needs associated with a particular disorder or disability, as well as by age or gender or by the racial and cultural identity of those who have mental illness.

Chapter 2 of the report was written to provide background information that would help persons from outside the mental health field better understand topics addressed in subsequent chapters of the report. Although the chapter is meant to serve as a mental health primer, its depth of discussion supports a range of conclusions:

  1. The multifaceted complexity of the brain is fully consistent with the fact that it supports all behavior and mental life. Proceeding from an acknowledgment that all psychological experiences are recorded ultimately in the brain and that all psychological phenomena reflect biological processes, the modern neuroscience of mental health offers an enriched understanding of the inseparability of human experience, brain, and mind.
  2. Mental functions, which are disturbed in mental disorders, are mediated by the brain. In the process of transforming human experience into physical events, the brain undergoes changes in its cellular structure and function.
  3. Few lesions or physiologic abnormalities define the mental disorders, and for the most part their causes remain unknown. Mental disorders, instead, are defined by signs, symptoms, and functional impairments.
  4. Diagnoses of mental disorders made using specific criteria are as reliable as those for general medical disorders.
  5. About one in five Americans experiences a mental disorder in the course of a year. Approximately 15 percent of all adults who have a mental disorder in one year also experiences a co-occurring substance (alcohol or other drug) use disorder, which complicates treatment.
  6. A range of treatments of well-documented efficacy exists for most mental disorders. Two broad types of intervention include psychosocial treatments—for example, psychotherapy or counseling—and psychopharmacologic treatments; these often are most effective when combined.
  7. In the mental health field, progress in developing preventive interventions has been slow because, for most major mental disorders, there is insufficient understanding about etiology (or causes of illness) and/or there is an inability to alter the known etiology of a particular disorder. Still, some successful strategies have emerged in the absence of a full understanding of etiology.
  8. About 10 percent of the U.S. adult population use mental health services in the health sector in any year, with another 5 percent seeking such services from social service agencies, schools, or religious or self-help groups. Yet critical gaps exist between those who need service and those who receive service.
  9. Gaps also exist between optimally effective treatment and what many individuals receive in actual practice settings.
  10. Mental illness and less severe mental health problems must be understood in a social and cultural context, and mental health services must be designed and delivered in a manner that is sensitive to the perspectives and needs of racial and ethnic minorities.
  11. The consumer movement has increased the involvement of individuals with mental disorders and their families in mutual support services, consumer-run services, and advocacy. They are powerful agents for changes in service programs and policy.
  12. The notion of recovery reflects renewed optimism about the outcomes of mental illness, including that achieved through an individual’s own self-care efforts, and the opportunities open to persons with mental illness to participate to the full extent of their interests in the community of their choice.

Mental Health and Mental Illness Across the Lifespan

The Surgeon General’s report takes a lifespan approach to its consideration of mental health and mental illness. Three chapters that address, respectively, the periods of childhood and adolescence, adulthood, and later adult life beginning somewhere between ages 55 and 65, capture the contributions of research to the breadth, depth, and vibrancy that characterize all facets of the contemporary mental health field.

The disorders featured in depth in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 were selected on the basis of the frequency with which they occur in our society, and the clinical, societal, and economic burden associated with each. To the extent that data permit, the report takes note of how gender and culture, in addition to age, influence the diagnosis, course, and treatment of mental illness. The chapters also note the changing role of consumers and families, with attention to informal support services (i.e., unpaid services), with which many consumers are comfortable and upon which they depend for information. Persons with mental illness and, often, their families welcome a proliferating array of support services—such as self-help programs, family self-help, crisis services, and advocacy—that help them cope with the isolation, family disruption, and possible loss of employment and housing that may accompany mental disorders. Support services can help to dissipate stigma and to guide patients into formal care as well.

Mental health and mental illness are dynamic, ever-changing phenomena. At any given moment, a person’s mental status reflects the sum total of that individual’s genetic inheritance and life experiences. The brain interacts with and responds—both in its function and in its very structure—to multiple influences continuously, across every stage of life. At different stages, variability in expression of mental health and mental illness can be very subtle or very pronounced. As an example, the symptoms of separation anxiety are normal in early childhood but are signs of distress in later childhood and beyond. It is all too common for people to appreciate the impact of developmental processes in children, yet not to extend that conceptual understanding to older people. In fact, people continue to develop and change throughout life. Different stages of life are associated with vulnerability to distinct forms of mental and behavioral disorders but also with distinctive capacities for mental health.

Even more than is true for adults, children must be seen in the context of their social environments—that is, family and peer group, as well as that of their larger physical and cultural surroundings. Childhood mental health is expressed in this context, as children proceed along the arc of development. A great deal of contemporary research focuses on developmental processes, with the aim of understanding and predicting the forces that will keep children and adolescents mentally healthy and maintain them on course to become mentally healthy adults. Research also focuses on identifying what factors place some at risk for mental illness and, yet again, what protects some children but not others despite exposure to the same risk factors. In addition to studies of normal development and of risk factors, much research focuses on mental disorders in childhood and adolescence and what can be done to prevent or treat these conditions and on the design and operation of service settings best suited to the needs experienced by children.

For about one in five Americans, adulthood—a time for achieving productive vocations and for sustaining close relationships at home and in the community—is interrupted by mental illness. Understanding why and how mental disorders occur in adulthood, often with no apparent portents of illness in earlier years, draws heavily on the full panoply of research conducted under the aegis of the mental health field. In years past, the onset, or occurrence, of mental illness in the adult years, was attributed principally to observable phenomena—for example, the burden of stresses associated with career or family, or the inheritance of a disease viewed to run in a particular family. Such explanations now may appear naive at best. Contemporary studies of the brain and behavior are racing to fill in the picture by elucidating specific neurobiological and genetic mechanisms that are the platform upon which a person’s life experiences can either strengthen mental health or lead to mental illness. It now is recognized that factors that influence brain development prenatally may set the stage for a vulnerability to illness that may lie dormant throughout childhood and adolescence. Similarly, no single gene has been found to be responsible for any specific mental disorder; rather, variations in multiple genes contribute to a disruption in healthy brain function that, under certain environmental conditions, results in a mental illness. Moreover, it is now recognized that socioeconomic factors affect individuals’ vulnerability to mental illness and mental health problems. Certain demographic and economic groups are more likely than others to experience mental health problems and some mental disorders. Vulnerability alone may not be sufficient to cause a mental disorder; rather, the causes of most mental disorders lie in some combination of genetic and environmental factors, which may be biological or psychosocial.

The fact that many, if not most, people have experienced mental health problems that mimic or even match some of the symptoms of a diagnosable mental disorder tends, ironically, to prompt many people to underestimate the painful, disabling nature of severe mental illness. In fact, schizophrenia, mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar illness, and anxiety often are devastating conditions. Yet relatively few mental illnesses have an unremitting course marked by the most acute manifestations of illness; rather, for reasons that are not yet understood, the symptoms associated with mental illness tend to wax and wane. These patterns pose special challenges to the implementation of treatment plans and the design of service systems that are optimally responsive to an individual’s needs during every phase of illness. As this report concludes, enormous strides are being made in diagnosis, treatment, and service delivery, placing the productive and creative possibilities of adulthood within the reach of persons who are encumbered by mental disorders.

Late adulthood is when changes in health status may become more noticeable and the ability to compensate for decrements may become limited. As the brain ages, a person’s capacity for certain mental tasks tends to diminish, even as changes in other mental activities prove to be positive and rewarding. Well into late life, the ability to solve novel problems can be enhanced through training in cognitive skills and problem-solving strategies.

The promise of research on mental health promotion notwithstanding, a substantial minority of older people are disabled, often severely, by mental disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, major depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and other conditions. In the United States today, the highest rate of suicide—an all-too-common consequence of unrecognized or inappropriately treated depression—is found in older males. This fact underscores the urgency of ensuring that health care provider training properly emphasizes skills required to differentiate accurately the causes of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that may, in some instances, rise to the level of mental disorders, and in other instances be expressions of unmet general medical needs.

As the life expectancy of Americans continues to extend, the sheer number—although not necessarily the proportion—of persons experiencing mental disorders of late life will expand, confronting our society with unprecedented challenges in organizing, financing, and delivering effective mental health services for this population. An essential part of the needed societal response will include recognizing and devising innovative ways of supporting the increasingly more prominent role that families are assuming in caring for older, mentally impaired and mentally ill family members.

Chapter 3: Children and Mental Health

  1. Childhood is characterized by periods of transition and reorganization, making it critical to assess the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of familial, social, and cultural expectations about age-appropriate thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
  2. The range of what is considered “normal” is wide; still, children and adolescents can and do develop mental disorders that are more severe than the “ups and downs” in the usual course of development.
  3. Approximately one in five children and adolescents experiences the signs and symptoms of a DSM-IV disorder during the course of a year, but only about 5 percent of all children experience what professionals term “extreme functional impairment.
  4. Mental disorders and mental health problems appear in families of all social classes and of all backgrounds. No one is immune. Yet there are children who are at greatest risk by virtue of a broad array of factors. These include physical problems; intellectual disabilities (retardation); low birth weight; family history of mental and addictive disorders; multigenerational poverty; and caregiver separation or abuse and neglect.
  5. Preventive interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing the impact of risk factors for mental disorders and improving social and emotional development by providing, for example, educational programs for young children, parent-education programs, and nurse home visits.
  6. A range of efficacious psychosocial and pharmacologic treatments exists for many mental disorders in children, including attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, depression, and the disruptive disorders.
  7. Research is under way to demonstrate the effectiveness of most treatments for children in actual practice settings (as opposed to evidence of “efficacy” in controlled research settings), and significant barriers exist to receipt of treatment.
  8. Primary care and the schools are major settings for the potential recognition of mental disorders in children and adolescents, yet trained staff are limited, as are options for referral to specialty care.
  9. The multiple problems associated with “serious emotional disturbance” in children and adolescents are best addressed with a “systems” approach in which multiple service sectors work in an organized, collaborative way. Research on the effectiveness of systems of care shows positive results for system outcomes and functional outcomes for children; however, the relationship between changes at the system level and clinical outcomes is still unclear.
  10. Families have become essential partners in the delivery of mental health services for children and adolescents.
  11. Cultural differences exacerbate the general problems of access to appropriate mental health services. Culturally appropriate services have been designed but are not widely available.

Chapter 4: Adults and Mental Health

  1. As individuals move into adulthood, developmental goals focus on productivity and intimacy including pursuit of education, work, leisure, creativity, and personal relationships. Good mental health enables individuals to cope with adversity while pursuing these goals.
  2. Untreated, mental disorders can lead to lost productivity, unsuccessful relationships, and significant distress and dysfunction. Mental illness in adults can have a significant and continuing effect on children in their care.
  3. Stressful life events or the manifestation of mental illness can disrupt the balance adults seek in life and result in distress and dysfunction. Severe or life-threatening trauma experienced either in childhood or adulthood can further provoke emotional and behavioral reactions that jeopardize mental health.
  4. Research has improved our understanding of mental disorders in the adult stage of the life cycle. Anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, particularly, present special problems in this age group. Anxiety and depression contribute to the high rates of suicide in this population. Schizophrenia is the most persistently disabling condition, especially for young adults, in spite of recovery of function by some individuals in mid to late life.
  5. Research has contributed to our ability to recognize, diagnose, and treat each of these conditions effectively in terms of symptom control and behavior management. Medication and other therapies can be independent, combined, or sequenced depending on the individual’s diagnosis and personal preference.
  6. A new recovery perspective is supported by evidence on rehabilitation and treatment as well as by the personal experiences of consumers.
  7. Certain common events of midlife (e.g., divorce or other stressful life events) create mental health problems (not necessarily disorders) that may be addressed through a range of interventions.
  8. Care and treatment in the real world of practice do not conform to what research determines is best. For many reasons, at times care is inadequate, but there are models for improving treatment.
  9. Substance abuse is a major co-occurring problem for adults with mental disorders. Evidence supports combined treatment, although there are substantial gaps between what research recommends and what typically is available in communities.
  10. Sensitivity to culture, race, gender, disability, poverty, and the need for consumer involvement are important considerations for care and treatment.
  11. Barriers of access exist in the organization and financing of services for adults. There are specific problems with Medicare, Medicaid, income supports, housing, and managed care.

Chapter 5: Older Adults and Mental Health

  1. Important life tasks remain for individuals as they age. Older individuals continue to learn and contribute to the society, in spite of physiologic changes due to aging and increasing health problems.
  2. Continued intellectual, social, and physical activity throughout the life cycle are important for the maintenance of mental health in late life.
  3. Stressful life events, such as declining health and/or the loss of mates, family members, or friends often increase with age. However, persistent bereavement or serious depression is not “normal” and should be treated.
  4. Normal aging is not characterized by mental or cognitive disorders. Mental or substance use disorders that present alone or co-occur should be recognized and treated as illnesses.
  5. Disability due to mental illness in individuals over 65 years old will become a major public health problem in the near future because of demographic changes. In particular, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia, among other conditions, will all present special problems in this age group:
    1. Dementia produces significant dependency and is a leading contributor to the need for costly long-term care in the last years of life;
    2. Depression contributes to the high rates of suicide among males in this population; and
    3. Schizophrenia continues to be disabling in spite of recovery of function by some individuals in mid to late life.
  6. There are effective interventions for most mental disorders experienced by older persons (for example, depression and anxiety), and many mental health problems, such as bereavement.
  7. Older individuals can benefit from the advances in psychotherapy, medication, and other treatment interventions for mental disorders enjoyed by younger adults, when these interventions are modified for age and health status.
  8. Treating older adults with mental disorders accrues other benefits to overall health by improving the interest and ability of individuals to care for themselves and follow their primary care provider’s directions and advice, particularly about taking medications.
  9. Primary care practitioners are a critical link in identifying and addressing mental disorders in older adults. Opportunities are missed to improve mental health and general medical outcomes when mental illness is underrecognized and undertreated in primary care settings.
  10. Barriers to access exist in the organization and financing of services for aging citizens. There are specific problems with Medicare, Medicaid, nursing homes, and managed care.

Chapter 6: Organization and Financing of Mental Health Services

In the United States in the late 20th century, research-based capabilities to identify, treat, and, in some instances, prevent mental disorders is outpacing the capacities of the service system the Nation has in place to deliver mental health care to all who would benefit from it. Approximately 10 percent of children and adults receive mental health services from mental health specialists or general medical providers in a given year. Approximately one in six adults, and one in five children, obtain mental health services either from health care providers, the clergy, social service agencies, or schools in a given year.

Chapter 6 discusses the organization and financing of mental health services. The chapter provides an overview of the current system of mental health services, describing where people get care and how they use services. The chapter then presents information on the costs of care and trends in spending. Only within recent decades, in the face of concerns about discriminatory policies in mental health financing, have the dynamics of insurance financing become a significant issue in the mental health field. In particular, policies that have emphasized cost containment have ushered in managed care. Intensive research currently is addressing both positive and adverse effects of managed care on access and quality, generating information that will guard against untoward consequences of aggressive cost-containment policies. Inequities in insurance coverage for mental health and general medical care—the product of decades of stigma and discrimination—have prompted efforts to correct them through legislation designed to produce financing changes and create parity. Parity calls for equality between mental health and other health coverage.

  1. Epidemiologic surveys indicate that one in five Americans has a mental disorder in any one year.
  2. Fifteen percent of the adult population use some form of mental health service during the year. Eight percent have a mental disorder; 7 percent have a mental health problem.
  3. Twenty-one percent of children ages 9 to 17 receive mental health services in a year.
  4. The U.S. mental health service system is complex and connects many sectors (public–private, specialty–general health, health–social welfare, housing, criminal justice, and education). As a result, care may become organizationally fragmented, creating barriers to access. The system is also financed from many funding streams, adding to the complexity, given sometimes competing incentives between funding sources.
  5. In 1996, the direct treatment of mental disorders, substance abuse, and Alzheimer’s disease cost the Nation $99 billion; direct costs for mental disorders alone totaled $69 billion. In 1990, indirect costs for mental disorders alone totaled $79 billion.
  6. Historically, financial barriers to mental health services have been attributable to a variety of economic forces and concerns (e.g., market failure, adverse selection, moral hazard, and public provision). This has accounted for differential resource allocation rules for financing mental health services.
    1. “Parity” legislation has been a partial solution to this set of problems.
    2. Implementing parity has resulted in negligible cost increases where the care has been managed.
    3. In recent years, managed care has begun to introduce dramatic changes into the organization and financing of health and mental health services.
  7. Trends indicate that in some segments of the private sector per capita mental health expenditures have declined much faster than they have for other conditions.
  8. There is little direct evidence of problems with quality in well-implemented managed care programs. The risk for more impaired populations and children remains a serious concern.
  9. An array of quality monitoring and quality improvement mechanisms has been developed, although incentives for their full implementation has yet to emerge. In addition, competition on the basis of quality is only beginning in the managed care industry.
  10. There is increasing concern about consumer satisfaction and consumers’ rights. A Consumers Bill of Rights has been developed and implemented in Federal Employee Health Benefit Plans, with broader legislation currently pending in the Congress.

Chapter 7: Confidentiality of Mental Health Information: Ethical, Legal, and Policy Issues

In an era in which the confidentiality of all health care information, its accessibility, and its uses are of concern to all Americans, privacy issues are particularly keenly felt in the mental health field. An assurance of confidentiality is understandably critical in individual decisions to seek mental health treatment. Although an extensive legal framework governs confidentiality of consumer-provider interactions, potential problems exist and loom ever larger.

  1. People’s willingness to seek help is contingent on their confidence that personal revelations of mental distress will not be disclosed without their consent.
  2. The U.S. Supreme Court recently has upheld the right to the privacy of these records and the therapist-client relationship.
  3. Although confidentiality issues are common to health care in general, there are special concerns for mental health care and mental health care records because of the extremely personal nature of the material shared in treatment.
  4. State and Federal laws protect the confidentiality of health care information but are often incomplete because of numerous exceptions which often vary from state to state. Several states have implemented or proposed models for protecting privacy that may serve as a guide to others.
  5. States, consumers, and family advocates take differing positions on disclosure of mental health information without consent to family caregivers. In states that allow such disclosure, information provided is usually limited to diagnosis, prognosis, and information regarding treatment, specifically medication.
  6. When conducting mental health research, it is in the interest of both the researcher and the individual participant to address informed consent and to obtain certificates of confidentiality before proceeding. Federal regulations require informed consent for research being conducted with Federal funds.
  7. New approaches to managing care and information technology threaten to further erode the confidentiality and trust deemed so essential between the direct provider of mental health services and the individual receiving those services. It is important to monitor advances so that confidentiality of records is enhanced, instead of impinged upon, by technology.
  8. Until the stigma associated with mental illnesses is addressed, confidentiality of mental health information will continue to be a critical point of concern for payers, providers, and consumers.

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