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Chartbook on Mental Health and Disability

Section 1: Mental health and disability: Definitions and prevalence

1.1. How many people have a mental disorder?

A number of surveys have measured how many people have a mental disorder. In general, these surveys ask people about whether they have experienced specific mental symptoms. A person who reports sufficient symptoms of a particular mental disorder is classified as having that mental disorder. Three major surveys covered in this Chartbook have used variations on this method. In the Epidemiologic Catchment Area Survey (ECA), in-depth psychiatric interviews were conducted in 5 geographical areas. The National Comorbidity Survey (NCS) was a nationally representative self-report survey. The Methods for the Epidemiology of Child and Adolescent Mental Disorders (MECA) was conducted with youth and their parents in 4 sites.

The Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999) consolidated data from the ECA, the NCS, and the MECA to arrive at best estimates of the prevalence of mental disorders in the U.S. According to these best estimates, about one in five Americans experiences a mental disorder in a given year. This represents about 44 million people. The prevalence of mental disorder is similar among different age groups: 18.9% of youth (9-17 years), 21.0% of working-age adults (18-54 years) and 19.8% of adults who are 55 years and older.

Each year, mental disorders affect about one in five Americans.

Figure 1 (see data table for text-only version)

Figure 1: Surgeon General’s best estimates of 1-year prevalence rates of mental disorder

Source: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (1999). Web site:

Surveys: National Comorbidity Survey (NCS), 1990-92; Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA), 1980-85; Methods for the Epidemiology of Child and Adolescent Mental Disorders (MECA). 1991-92

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