May is Mental Health Awareness Month

But where is the data to understand the depth and impact of mental illness across America?


Simply put it is sparse, uneven and detached from typical physical indicators we use to measure health.  There are many reasons for this, including the stigma that has long been attached to any suggestion of mental deficiency.

So what is mental health? 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is a state of wellbeing in which an individual “can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life.”

Mental health is more than the “absence of a mental illness”—it is an integral part of overall health. In fact, it can positively or negatively impact a person’s physical health, including their life expectancy.  See for yourself by clicking here or the scatterplot on the right.

Who is at risk?

Even before the pandemic, more than 51 million adults in the U.S. experienced some form of mental illness — that’s one out of every 5 adults — according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 

Daily life stressors can increase risk of experiencing mental health problems.  Worrying about personal stability such as employment, access to healthcare, paying bills and having enough food can all contribute.

COVID-19 and racial unrest over the past year caused many to confront violence, discrimination or racism like never before.  Individuals have found they lacked enough social and community support, or simply did not have access to adequate mental healthcare.

Understanding the data

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Privacy Rule published in 2002 make up the backbone of how an individual’s physical and mental health data can be shared.

This was a critical step forward and created a way to holistically look at patients, but did not significantly increase the data that was collected and shared publicly.

Publicly available data around mental health and specific mental illnesses is hard to come by.  Most of what is available is at the state or county level, based on sparse surveys, and demographic stratifications are rarely provided.

One way to tackle this challenge is to take a layered, environmental approach looking at the limited health conditions available along with some of those daily stressors.   

Start with data available about mental health conditions. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides data on self-reported poor mental health, poor mental health days and low social emotional support, while the National Vital Statistics System provides data around suicide deaths and drug overdose mortality.

For this analysis we’ve prepared a series of insights using Metopio’s scatterplot to identify correlations between diverse data.  Then we visualize these related topics on a filtered map to examine places where they occur together in a meaningful way.  

You can see the complete set of insights in Metopio’s Mental Health Analysis project.

Starting with poor self-reported mental health and drug overdose mortality, we find highly significant relationships with unemployment and sleeping less than 7 hours.  Remember, this is not causation but correlation, although we are controlling for demographics and socioeconomics like income and education.

Taking these correlations and layering them on a map along with mental health providers per-capita helps us understand where environmental stressors are prevalent and there are fewer mental health resources to meet the need.  

We can also see how poor self-reported mental health has a highly significant relationship with chronic diseases such as diagnosed diabetes, obesity and hypertension using the scatterplot. The data does not let us determine whether poor mental health influences chronic disease, or vice-versa, but the reality is that the relationship is likely bi-directional.

Data can help understand the interrelated nature of physical and mental health, but only to the extent that the research is done and the data are available. 

Finally, if you or someone you know is in need of mental health resources, there are many organizations like the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) or the National Association for Suicide Prevention at 800-273-8255 that are available to listen and provide assistance.  Don’t delay, reach out.

Do you have data that would enhance this analysis?

Metopio aggregates high-quality, verified data to understand places and populations.  We are always seeking  data that can help policy-makers, strategists, healthcare leaders and advocates make better, more informed decisions. 

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