Few people make it to the age of 38 without experiencing some kind of mental illness, at least for a time. This is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which studied 988 individuals at various points in their lifespan.

The study found that 83 percent of subjects reported depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders. It revealed that roughly 41% of the respondents had suffered some mental disorder, sometimes for a short term, by the time they reached age 38. The other 408 participants reported longer struggles with mental illnesses of various varieties, some lasting over several years. Some had been diagnosed with serious conditions such as major depression or bipolar disorder.

The study covered the lifetimes of the 988 individuals involved, making a total of 13 assessments between their birth and their 38th year. According to the authors of the study, this estimate of the percentage of the population that suffers from mental illness is in line with other long-term mental health surveys, and therefore offers more evidence that mental health is something that a majority of people, at least in the West, deal with at some point in their lives.

What the research also accomplished was to identify the characteristics of the 17 percent of people who reported no mental illnesses. Those with no history of mental illness tended to be similar in personality from a young age. They tended to be optimistic as kids, were members of large social groups, and were more mature and independent than their peers. The study also showed a link between the good mental health of such children and their parents, who had little or no history of diagnosed mental disorders.

In my own research on mental illness, I have consistently found that most people have a mental illness, but many do not report it. For example, I often ask students in my classes how many of them have phobias. On the average, about a fifth of them raise their hands. When I ask how many of them have reported their phobias or sought treatment for them, usually no hands go up. This is not only true for phobias but for almost all mental illnesses. Many people are either aware they have a mental illness but minimize the importance of the illness, or they are not aware of it at all.

Substance abuse, for example, is a common mental disorder, but a great many people either deny they have this problem or, even if they admit it, never report it or seek treatment for it. Dysthymia, a neurotic form of depression, is also widespread, but many people never report it or seek help for it. There are also a variety of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder that are common but not reported. Addictive disorders such as those involving gambling, internet porn or hoarding, are also seldom reported.

People who have mental disorders of these and other kinds tend to make up excuses to make them seem reasonable. Many think that admitting to a disorder will lead to social stigma and therefore are reluctant to acknowledge it.
And then there are those individuals who do not think they have a mental illness because they have one that is “successful.” Those with a narcissistic personality disorder are often successful in a certain way. They present themselves as superior people and other personalities, such as dependent personalities, look for a superior person to become attached to and follow. The narcissist takes out his insecurities (or projects them) onto such followers and hence remains unconscious of their existence.

The bottom line is that there is far more mental illness than is reported, and perhaps far more than is found in studies such as the one above. Since nobody is perfect, everybody might be said to suffer from some degree or another of mental illness. But becoming aware of it and doing something about it is a different matter.

The main reason people do not want to admit they have a problem and never report it is because of the human tendency of people to want to regard themselves as normal. Nobody wants to think they are not normal, because that would cause an immediate drop in their self-esteem. Often people join political or religious groups and in which there is a group consensus that members of the group are sane while only outsiders are disturbed.

When people do go in for treatment, they usually go because they are suffering in their relationships with others. For a long time clients do not want to focus on what they may be contributing to their own suffering. Instead, they want to focus on what others are doing to them to make them suffer. A good part of the treatment is spent building a client’s ego to an extent at which they can begin to explore themselves in an objective way and acknowledge the ways in which their own unconscious thoughts, emotions and behaviors contribute to their problems.

Understanding that you are not alone may be a good start. As the old saying goes, “Misery loves company.” The more studies there are that tell us that most of us suffer from some type of mental illness, the more acceptable it will be to have a mental illness, and hence the more acceptable it will be to seek help for one.

Mental illnesses have been shown to involve not only mental, emotional and behavioral deviations; they also lead to physical illnesses. Becoming healthy and adjusted requires us to prioritize being aware of our mental disorders.