The Increase Of Mental Health Issues And How Social Workers Can Help

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The increase in mental health diagnoses in the United States over the past few decades is truly staggering. Mental Health America estimates that one in five adults today experiences a mental health condition of some sort, according to “The State Of Mental Health In America” on

Some authorities suggest that the increase in diagnoses doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in mental health problems, but rather reflects overall improvements in the availability and efficiency of mental healthcare. Others argue that mental health problems are actually getting worse.

Whether mental health is declining or mental healthcare is improving, or if both are occurring simultaneously, social workers and those who hold Master’s in Social Work degrees are well situated to offer therapeutic help to the increasing number of people seeking treatment for mental disorders and illnesses.

An estimated one in five adults today experiences a mental health issue of some sort.

Mental Health Today

The mental health community has seen a marked increase in the number of mental health diagnoses in recent years, especially among children and young adults. The types of disorders being seen more frequently are depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The National Alliance on Mental Health reports staggering statistics. In 2015, it found:

  • One in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness
  • One in twenty-five adults experiences debilitating, serious mental illness
  • 6.9 percent of adults had at least one major depressive episode in the last year
  • 18.1 percent of adults experienced an anxiety disorder of some sort
  • Only 41 percent of adults with a mental health condition received any mental health services

Research also has documented the rise:

  • According to Sherry A. Benton, et al., in her Professional Psychology: Research and Practice article “Changes in Counseling Center Client Problems Across 13 Years,” the number of college students seeking counseling for depression doubled and the number of students seeking help for suicidal thoughts tripled over the course of the study.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services, in its “National Projections Of Supply And Demand For Selected Behavioral Health Practitioners: 2013-2025,” predicts a severe shortage of psychiatrists, mental health and substance abuse social workers, school counselors, and marriage and family therapists by 2025 if the rate of diagnoses continues to increase at its current rate. This shortage could be greater than 10,000 full-time equivalent workers (FTEs).
  • “Only 41 percent of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9 percent received mental health services in the past year,” according to “Mental Health By The Numbers” on The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) mental health website.
  • In “Trends in Mental Health Care Among Children and Adolescents,” Drs. Mark Olfson, Benjamin G. Druss, and Steven C. Marcus also report that the number of young people aged 6 to 17 who receive outpatient mental health services rose from 9.2 percent (1996 through 1998) to 13.3 percent (2010 through 2012).

Cause And Effect

Understanding the factors behind the increase in mental health issues can help doctors, counselors, and scientific researchers better handle the problem.

Sociologists have found that cultural experiences and trends can have significant effects on the mental health of a population. In their Milbank Quarterly article, “Cultures as a Causative of Mental Disorder,” Dr. Alexander H. Leighton and Jane M. Hughes, PhD, noted that:

  • Culture can produce basic personality types, some of which are vulnerable to mental health issues
  • Child-rearing practices, which are often related to culture, can produce certain psychiatric disorders
  • Cultural sanctions (conformity vs. nonconformity) can also affect psychiatric disorders
  • Certain cultural roles are sometimes expected to exhibit psychiatric malfunctioning (such as the stereotype of the starving, dysfunctional artist)
  • Culture can involve high-stress work environments that can lead to mental health problems. Examples include the military, law enforcement, airline pilot/air traffic control, and any industries with fast-paced deadline or quota schedules

How Social Workers Can Help

With the number of mental health patients growing steadily, social workers are needed to fill a number of roles, from therapy and treatment to addiction counseling, geriatric assistance, and child welfare.

Social workers are tasked with providing healthcare to disadvantaged groups, running child abuse and neglect prevention programs, offering physical health advice and assistance, working with the courts and prison systems, establishing a presence in educational facilities and institutions, and helping with disabilities, developmental issues, watchdogging civil liberties, and work-related grievances, according to

All of these tasks are essential when dealing with people who are currently seeking or receiving help. But what about those who need help, but aren’t seeking it? Embarrassment, shame, pride, or cultural stigmas prevent many people from seeking help for mental health issues.

“Changing the stigma of mental illness has proven a difficult task,” Georg Shomerus and his team wrote in “An Online Intervention Using Information On The Mental Health-Mental Illness Continuum To Reduce Stigma” in the journal European Psychiatry.

“[Anti-stigma strategies] could involve promulgating the idea of a mental heath-mental illness continuum. Continua from a few mild symptoms to many severe symptoms have been found for psychiatric disorders.”

Essentially, the mental health-mental illness continuum is a teaching tool used to illustrate the many subtle, seemingly insignificant steps leading from a mentally healthy state to a state of severe mental illness. Social workers can use the model to confront the “mental illness would never happen to me” outlook that fuels social stigmas.

Social work can be instrumental in reducing any further inflation of mental health problems in society. Social workers themselves can help by staying current with mental health trends, assistance and treatment programs, and new social work methodologies, and by always seeking to reach those who, for whatever reason, are too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help.

The Future

While scientific researchers tackle the experimental side of mental health and develop new theories on treatment, social workers can take a much more pragmatic approach to mental health problems here and now.

Social workers can offer therapy; facilitate support groups; help with sustenance, shelter, and financial troubles; and educate the population on the realities of mental health.

About Case Western Reserve University’s Online MSSA Program

Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences is ranked among the top ten Social Work graduate schools by U.S. News & World Report and offers a Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA, equivalent to an MSW) online. The coursework blends seamlessly with hands-on field experience in three concentrations: Community Practice for Social Change, Direct Practice (Children, Youth, and Families), and Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults).


  • The State Of Mental Health In America –
  • Changes in Counseling Center Client Problems Across 13 Years –
  • National Projections Of Supply And Demand For Selected Behavioral Health Practitioners: 2013-2025 –
  • Mental Health By The Numbers –
  • Trends in Mental Health Care Among Children and Adolescents –
  • Mental Health By The Numbers –
  • Culture as a Causative of Mental Disorder –
  • An Online Intervention Using Information On The Mental-Health-Mental Illness Continuum To Reduce Stigma –