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People Indicators: Mental Health

Mental health is an important indicator of overall health status. Like physical health, mental health fluctuates over time in individuals. Individuals can be born with a mental illness or can become mentally ill. The overall mental health of a region can be measured by the number of self-reported “poor mental health days.” More below…



Mental illness, defined as “mental disorders that negatively affect one’s performance as a family member, a student, an employee and an employer,” affects one of every five, or 665,000, Houstonians. However, of these 665,000 individuals, only 181,690 have a serious mental illness, which is defined to “dramatically limit [one’s] capacity to effectively deal with life’s challenges.” Examples of serious mental illnesses include serious emotional disturbance, severe anxiety, disruptive behavior disorders, mood disorders (primarily depression), schizophrenia and personality disorder. It is estimated that less than half of those suffering from mental illness receive treatment (UT School of Public Health, 2009).

In the Houston region, 20.8% of the total population is reported to experience more than five poor mental health days per month. This is slightly higher than the State average of 20.4% and slightly lower than San Antonio (21.0%). These rates may be affected by lack of access to mental health services.

Houston loses more than $5.6 billion per year in productivity and annual earnings from serious mental illness. In 2009, depression accounted for a loss of $1.29 billion due to work absences. Schizophrenia added $1 billion, with the combined losses from bipolar and severe anxiety disorders totaling an estimated $3.1 billion (UT School of Public Health, 2009).

A formidable barrier to mental health care in Houston is the substantial underfunding of state-supported mental health services. Inadequate access to mental health services often results in the mentally ill falling into a cycle of crisis care. In 2009 it was estimated that 2,500 people in the Harris County Jail (out of roughly 9,500 detainees) were receiving psychiatric care (UT School of Public Health, 2009).

Another barrier is the lack of psychiatric beds. National statistics recommend 70 inpatient beds per 100,000 people; however, a minimum of 50 public beds per 100,000 people is needed. Houston falls short of both standards, with about 23 total beds per 100,000 and 7 public beds per 100,000 (UT School of Public Health, 2009).

Source cited

Mental Health Policy Analysis Collaborative (MHPAC), “The Consequences of Untreated Mental Illness in Houston,” University of Texas School of Public Health, 2009.