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Mental disabilities rising

The prevalence of mental illness is notoriously hard to track. But a new study of thousands of 65-and-under Americans finds that mental health disabilities are on the rise, even as physical disabilities are declining.

Participants rated their difficulty with tasks like walking and shopping, and then identified the underlying causes from a list of conditions including arthritis, obesity, and a single mental health category defined as "depression, anxiety, or emotional problems."

The rate of mental health disability climbed by a third, from 2 percent of the non-elderly population in 1997 to 2.7 percent in 2009. Study author Ramin Mojtabai, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Md., suggests that Americans are beginning to understand that psychic distress can be debilitating and that ailments like depression and anxiety often come with physical symptoms.

If anything, says David Chambers, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, the study highlights the need for more integrated health care, so that a patient who visits his doctor for migraines, say, could also get treatment for the depression that might be causing them. The increase in self-reported mental health disabilities may not be an ongoing trend, however, but a temporary uptick created by the success of awareness campaigns.

-- Psychology Today