June 12, 2009 / 9:23 AM / 10 years ago

Scale of mental illness in China underestimated

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A study in China has found that as many as 173 million adults, about 13 percent of the population, have some form of mental disorder, and 158 million of them have never received any professional help.

The study, published in the Lancet, said previous reports had substantially underestimated the extent of mental illness in China’s 1.3 billion-strong population and the burden it placed on the quality of peoples’ lives.

In many countries, neuropsychiatric conditions are the leading cause of ill health in men and women, with a disease burden far exceeding that of infectious diseases or cardiovascular disease.

However, efforts to improve services to people who are mentally ill have been hampered by a lack of data showing the extent and the seriousness of the problem.

The Chinese survey screened an initial total of 63,004 people in the four Chinese provinces of Shandong, Zhejiang, Qinghai and Gansu. These four provinces represent 12 percent of China’s adult population.

Of these, 16,577 — comprising mostly participants assessed to be at highest risk of suffering mental illness — went through a second round of detailed testing by psychiatrists.

Findings showed that 17.5 percent of them (63,004) had some form of mental disorder, way higher than previous studies which reported figures of between 1.1 percent to 9.1 percent.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, mental disorders are common in the United States and internationally. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, about one in four adults, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

Mental disorders include mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and psychosis, like schizophrenia.

“Mood and anxiety disorders were more common in women than men and in individuals aged 40 years and older. Alcohol use disorders were 48 times more prevalent in men than in women, and people from rural areas were more likely to have depressive disorders and alcohol dependence than those from urban areas,” wrote the researchers.

They were led by Professor Michael Phillips at the Beijing Hui Long Guan Hospital.

Among people with mental illness, 24 percent reported that they were moderately or severely disabled by their illness. Yet only 8 percent of those with mental illness had ever sought any type of professional help.

Only 5 percent reported ever seeing a mental health professional.

“Projection of our results to all of China suggests that 173 million adults in the country have a mental disorder and 158 million of these have never received any type of professional help,” they wrote.

They urged that more funds be set aside for these people.

“A major redistribution of societal and health resources is needed to address a problem of this size and will only happen with the active participation of powerful political, economic, social and professional stakeholders in the community.”

Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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