The Undiagnosed Majority

The smell of alcohol fills the air. The sounds of people coughing fill the otherwise quiet room. A man with drooping dark circles patiently waits for his doctor to arrive. Lately, he has been feeling drained and has trouble focusing on his job. Suspecting the presence of some physical illness, he schedules an appointment with his primary physician, who asks the man protocol questions as he prepares for the examination. “Name and Age?” “Eyes?” Check. “Nose?” Check. “Ears?” Check. “Mouth?” Check. “Muscle Reflex?” Check. “Alright, looks like you’re good to go,” the doctor says before closing the door. The man, bewildered, says aloud, “Then what is wrong with me?” 

This man is not alone in his confusion. After all, it can be difficult to see mental health issues for what they are, since they are not visible in the same way that physical ailments can be. Yet, caring for our mental health is just as important as caring for our physical health, since they are interconnected. However, most mental health problems go undiagnosed, affecting the quality of life for millions of Americans. In order to improve our collective well-being, we must actively care for not only our own mental health, but also that of those around us.

Whether they are aware of it or not, most individuals will meet someone who has experienced mental disorders themselves at some point in their lives. In fact, those affected by mental disorders might even be among our closest friends or family. According to the CDC, “1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.” Additionally, according to the Depression and Bipolar Alliance, “Nearly two out of three people suffering from depression do not actively seek nor receive proper treatment.” These statistics are largely specific to depression and bipolar disorders, so it is hard to imagine the untreated, let alone undiagnosed, number of cases for other types of mental disorders. 

Perhaps the biggest factor that weighs into one’s decision to reach out for mental health support is the societal stigma associated with mental health problems. But another factor may be the lack of visibility surrounding mental health resources that are made available to Americans. Researchers at the American Psychiatric Association predict that “if all adults with probable mental illness were exposed to the California mental health campaign, 47% would receive mental health treatment.” Mental health treatment is all the more important, as mental health issues often stem from problems within the individual that run deeper than simple cuts. Unlike small cuts that usually heal over time with the help of bandages and ointments, mental health issues can take longer to heal. Furthermore, mental health disorders look different for each person, considering differences in individuals’ lived experiences and backgrounds. Thus, guidance from a trained mental health professional is crucial to help such individuals manage their mental disorders.

Children make up an often-overlooked subpopulation that are vulnerable to mental disorders. These days, children as young as eight years of age experience mental health issues. In fact, even children under 12 are “no longer considered to be a low-risk group anymore,” according to a New York Times article. This shows that mental health problems are not issues that are only limited to “moody teenagers”; rather, they are an important aspect of our health that concerns people of all ages, races, gender identities and more. As a society, we cannot afford to ignore the toll of mental disorders for any longer. Because now, the stakes of stigmatized mental health issues have risen even higher to include children.

It can be difficult for many people to determine whether they have mental health problems that need to be checked. Like the man in the hospital, they may have a hard time understanding that these mental health disorders often stem from larger problems within the individual. Ideally, the disorder would be found in its early stages and be treated with the most effective treatment available. For this to occur, however, prioritizing mental health should become normalized in the American healthcare system. As individuals, we can begin taking steps toward improving the mental health of future generations by first tending to the mental health needs of our children.