HHS News, US Department of Health and Human Services

December 13, 1999

Contact: Damon Thompson


A range of effective, well-documented treatments exist for most mental disorders, yet nearly half of all Americans who have a severe mental illness fail to seek treatment, according to the first-ever Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health.  The report, commissioned by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, also focuses on the connection between mental health and physical health, barriers to receiving mental health treatment, and the specific mental health issues of children, adults and the elderly.

"Mental health is fundamental to a person's overall health, indispensable to personal well being and instrumental to leading a balanced and productive life," said Dr. Satcher.  "My message to Americans is this: If you, or a loved one, are experiencing what you believe might be the symptoms of a mental disorder, do not hesitate to seek effective treatment now.  Insist on the kinds of services that this report makes clear can and should be available.  While there is no single solution to any mental disorder, most people with mental disorders have treatment options—including medications and short term psychotherapy, and community-based supportive services."

Dr. David Satcher and Secretary Shalala presented the report to Tipper Gore, the President's advisor on mental health today, highlighting that the qualities of mental health are essential to leading a healthy life.

"The Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health provides an historic opportunity to deepen America's understanding of mental health," said Tipper Gore.  "Everyday, in every community, millions of Americans face mental illness.  It is an issue that touches us all.  We need to continue working to strengthen our nation's mental health system and fight the stigma associated with mental illness so all Americans can get the treatment and services they need to live full and productive lives."

Dr. Satcher noted that over last two decades a revolution in science and service delivery has broadened our understanding of mental health and illness, and improved the way in which mental health care is provided.  Safe and effective options are available to treat the mental disorders that affect one in five Americans per year.

"This report confirms that research about the complex workings of the brain has armed us with the knowledge needed to deliver effective treatment and better services for most mental disorders.  This report also provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness," said Secretary Shalala.

The Surgeon General urged Americans to take advantage of the tremendous growth of science by seeking treatment, and emphasized the importance of bringing this often hidden topic out into the open.

The report notes that disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders are real illnesses that, if untreated, can be as disabling and serious as cancer and heart disease in terms of premature death and lost productivity.

Manic-depressive (bipolar) illness, anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Alzheimer's disease are other common mental illnesses that affect millions of Americans.  However, quality of life is tremendously improved when a mental disorder or mental health problem is diagnosed early and treated appropriately.

The 500-page publication, Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, defines mental disorders as diagnosable conditions that impair thinking, feeling and behavior, and interfere with a person's capacity to be productive and enjoy fulfilling relationships.  The report uses the term mental illness to refer collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders.  The term "mental health problems" refers to the presence of signs and symptoms that are not intense or long-lasting enough to meet the criteria for a mental disorder.  However, they are real, painful and potentially disabling.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) worked with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to develop the report under the guidance of the Surgeon General.  The federal partners also established a Planning Board to assist in the development of the report.  The board consisted of individuals who represented a broad range of expertise in mental health.

About 15 percent of the U.S. adult population use some form of mental health service in any year.  According to the report, however, the complex and fragmented mental health service delivery system can create barriers to a full range of appropriate services.  Financial barriers and stigma also serve as deterrents to the receipt of appropriate and necessary care.  These factors result in a gap between what research has shown to be optimally effective treatments and what many people receive in actual practice settings.

"While mental disorders may touch all Americans either directly or indirectly, all do not have equal access to treatment and service," said Dr. Satcher.  "We need to ensure that mental health services are as widely available as other services in the continuously changing health care delivery system."

The report also proposes broad courses of action that will improve the quality of mental health in the nation.  These courses of action include continuing to build the science base; overcoming stigma; improving public awareness of effective treatment; ensuring the supply of mental health services and providers; ensuring delivery of state-of-the-art treatments; tailoring treatment to age, gender, race and culture; facilitating entry into treatment; and reducing financial barriers to treatment.

The Surgeon General's report takes a life-span approach in considering mental health and mental illness, devoting chapters to trends seen among children, adults and the elderly.  Different stages of life are associated with vulnerability to distinct forms of mental and behavioral disorders but also with distinctive capacities for mental health.  The report examines how gender, culture and age influence the diagnosis, course, and treatment of mental illness.  It also acknowledges the growing role of advocacy groups, consumers, and families in improving treatment and recovery for all age groups. 

"Mental disorders and, to an even greater extent, mental health problems can affect anyone," Dr. Satcher said.  "Few Americans are untouched by mental illness, whether it occurs within one's family or among neighbors, co-workers or members of the community."

The report also acknowledges areas in which further research and analysis is necessary to understand the impact of mental health issues on special populations.  These include mental health issues regarding racial and ethnic groups, sexual orientation and people living with disabilities.

Dr. Satcher urged Americans to call the toll-free number 1-877-9-MHEALTH or write to Mental Health, Pueblo, Colorado 81009 to receive the Executive Summary of the report, a resource directory, fact sheets and a catalog of related materials available from federal agencies.  A full copy of Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General is available on the World Wide Web at www.surgeongeneral.gov, and may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents at the Government Printing Office.



Note: For other HHS Press Releases and Fact Sheets pertaining to the subject of this announcement, please visit http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/

Back to Top

Back to Press Releases

Go to Mental Health Report