A new robust, in-depth study that interviewed over 5,000 young adults from 2001 to 2002 has found that nearly half of them (47.7%) likely have a diagnosable mental disorder — most commonly, alcohol abuse, depression, ADHD or anxiety.

One in five was also found to meet the criteria for a personality disorder, a more chronic condition that often interferes with the person’s ability to interact in a healthy manner with others at school, work, or in relationships.

The study also compared those attending college with those who weren’t, to see if mental concerns were more prevalent in one group, or if specific concerns occurred with more frequency. It found overall rates similar between the two groups, but alcohol-related concerns significantly more prevalent in those attending college (surprise, surprise!). College students, however, were less likely to have a substance abuse or nicotine problem, and were less often diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Not surprising (but still eye-opening) was the fact that the vast majority of young adults never seek treatments for these concerns. Only about a quarter of those who qualified for a diagnosis had received treatment for a mental disorder (compared with about 33% of the general population who have a diagnosable mental disorer seek treatment for it).

I say “not surprising” because treatment as a young adult is difficult to come by. At university, the only readily accessible treatment option is the student counseling center, which often is only equipped to focus on non-serious mental disorders and concerns (such as procrastination, test anxiety, and relationship issues). Outside of college, options are even more limited, as many young adults choose not to have health insurance (or can’t afford it), and therefore would have to pay significant costs for treatment (or spend up to a year on a wait-list waiting for treatment from a community health or mental health center).

A study such as this also raises the very real concern and age-old debate about over-diagnosis and whether we’re becoming a society that has a label for every discomfort. The last edition (4th) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM, the diagnostic bible that defines mental disorders) greatly expanded the breadth of disorders from the previous edition. The edition currently under development (5th) threatens to expand the number even more, potentially defining virtually any dysfunctional behavior which causes some distress as a disorder on the same playing field as depression or bipolar disorder.

I don’t know the answer, but according to the current criteria, a lot of young people are grappling with some pretty serious concerns. Many of whom would benefit from treatment, if only we had a way to reach out to more of them and provide an economical way to pay for it.

Read the full article: Half of Young Adults Have Mental Disorder