Why Mental Illness Often Goes Undiagnosed and Untreated


Due to the nature of mental health, those with a mental illness or illnesses often live with their symptoms for long periods of time before seeking treatment if they ever do so at all. Without professional help, mental conditions will only get worse, so the sooner that patients are diagnosed and begin treatment, the better. Persistent symptoms often drive people to self-medicate, which is the act of abusing drugs or alcohol in order to get temporary relief from their symptoms. This behavior is typically observed in those with a chronic condition, particularly mental disorders, and can be a more accessible than professional treatment depending on the individual case. However, self-medication is only initially effective. After it becomes the standard solution for symptoms, it shortly becomes the same for any ills whatsoever. This progression soon gives way to substance abuse and addiction followed by patients turning one mental condition into two, each enabling the other to spiral out of control.

The State of Mental Health

More frequent than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, mental illnesses affect over 450 million people worldwide and can be life-threatening, if only indirectly. By 2020, mental health disorders are projected to overtake all physical diseases as a more recurrent cause of disability.[1] Manifesting themselves with the following symptoms, some of the more common mental disorders are:[2]

  • Infographic about the average age of onset of mental illness. Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Restlessness, low energy, poor concentration, irritability, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, etc.
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder: Better known as anger issues, this condition is marked by a failure to resist aggressive impulses and the instance of aggressive expression being grossly out of proportion to the event that triggered it.
  • Clinical Depression: Persistent, crushing sadness accompanied by a sense of hopelessness, a lack of energy, and little to no pleasure derived from formerly enjoyed activities.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Severe mood swings characterized by alternating episodes of mania and depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): A form of severe anxiety consisting of recurring, disturbing thoughts (obsessions) and/or ritualized behaviors that the patient feels compelled to perform (compulsions). Typically associated with a strong aversion of contamination from dirt, germs, illnesses, etc., and the need for exactness and symmetry.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Caused by the experience of a tragic or terrifying event such as a car accident, sexual assault, or war, victims of PTSD relive the trauma in the form of nightmares and disturbing daytime recollections.
  • Schizophrenia: Manifesting itself with auditory, visual, olfactory, and/or tactile hallucinations and delusions, schizophrenia has several different forms and is a severe disorder marked by paranoia and a dissociation from reality.

Infographic about the cost of untreated mental illness around the world. Mental illnesses begin manifesting themselves in 50 percent of patients by the age of 14 and in 75 percent of patients by the age of 25. Despite the early onset, between 76 and 85 percent of serious cases do not receive treatment in low and middle income nations. That range drops to between 35 and 50 percent in high incomes countries, yet it still represents a huge margin. Additionally, many symptoms of less severe mental disorders are written off as growing pains or “just a phase” for years. This crippling delay between the initial appearance of symptoms and the beginning of treatment allows for the condition to become more severe, the potential co-occurrence of other mental illnesses, and a lower treatment success rate as people age and their disorders become ingrained in their identities.[1]

Some factors that lead to patients balking at getting help are:

  • The nature of mental illness often entails self-objectivity being in short supply, resulting in many patients not being aware that they need treatment or denying that fact altogether
  • As much of mental health treatment lies adjacent to the realm of conventional medicine, some patients doubt that its effectiveness entirely
  • Many low-income patients cannot afford professional help or simply do not have access to it
  • The archaic stigma of mental illness is alive and well despite the majority of us knowing better by now
  • Barring the above, others are restricted by work, school, or childcare responsibilities from pursuing proper treatment

The perception of mental illnesses is a significant contributing factor to why it doesn’t receive the attention that it needs at the macro level. This negative association results in alienation and discrimination of those afflicted by mental health disorders, leading to social isolation and inadequate treatment if there ever is any treatment at all. Mental illnesses account for over 20 percent of global healthcare costs yet many countries devote less than 3 percent of their healthcare budget to it.[1]

The Dangers of Self-Medication

Self-medication as a treatment for mental illnesses is a house of cards. By seeking relief from your symptoms through the abuse of drugs and/or alcohol, you incur several risks capable of significantly harming your overall mental health, including:[3]

Picture of alcohol and drugs on a wooden table.

Becoming too addicted to your substance of choice

As with the use of any addictive substance, there is an inherent threat of becoming dependent on it. As patients continually self-medicate, each dose will have less and less of an effect, requiring patients to gradually consume more and more each usage. Depending on how much a patient self-medicates, there is an increasingly bigger risk of this, creating an additional mental illness in the form of a substance use disorder. The most commonly abused substances used for self-medication are alcohol, prescription pills, marijuana and heroin.

Illustration of a human brain.

Exacerbating your primary mental illness

Substance abuse leads to addiction which is a mental illness. The nature of mental disorders entails that each one feeds off of any other, trading short-term, artificial relief for further deteriorating mental health over the long-term.

Picture of a black door.

Closing the door on getting professional treatment forever

The more that patients self-medicate as their sole method of treatment, the less likely they are to ever pursue professional help – the only healthy and effective way to treat mental conditions for good.

Taking on all of these risks for temporary, partial relief with a significantly diminishing return just doesn’t add up. An estimated 50 percent of individuals with severe mental illnesses are abusing a substance and among patients properly diagnosed with a mental disorder, 29 percent of them abuse either drugs or alcohol. All told, 53 percent of drug abusers and 37 percent of alcohol abusers have at least one serious mental condition.[4] How widespread this self-medication is among mental health patients indicates a systemic problem in the way that the United States, as well as many other countries, regard and address their mentally ill population.

If you or someone you know is abusing drugs or alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate a mental disorder, Unity Behavioral Health can help. We are a comprehensive recovery center located in scenic North Palm Beach, FL, specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and dual diagnosis. Call us today at 561-708-5295 to learn more.

http://www.iccd.org/keyfacts.html
https://psychcentral.com/disorders/
http://www.drugrehab.us/news/what-are-the-most-abused-substances-to-self-medicate-anxiety
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addiction/substance-abuse-and-mental-health.htm