In 2003, there were an estimated 19.6 million men and women aged 18 years or older with serious mental illness (SMI).1 Females were disproportionately affected and were more likely than males to report a SMI within the past year. The highest rate of serious mental illness occurred among women in the 18-25 age group, with 17.3 percent of these women reporting an SMI within the past year. The greatest disparity between men and women occurred in the 26-49 age group, with women nearly twice as likely as men to have experienced an SMI in the past year (13.8 compared to 7.0 percent).Although the majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit suicide, mental illness is a primary risk factor. Over 90 percent of suicides in the U.S. are associated with mental illness and/or alcohol and substance abuse.2 In 2002, the rate of suicide continued to be substantially higher for males (18.4 per 100,000) than for females (4.2 per 100,000). However, it is estimated that there were three suicide attempts among females for every one among males.

Among women who did commit suicide, rates were highest among non-Hispanic White women (5.1 deaths per 100,000), followed by American Indian/Alaska Native women (4.1 deaths per 100,000). Lower rates were found among Asian/Pacific Islander women (3.0 per 100,000), Hispanic women (1.8 per 100,000), and Non-Hispanic Black women (1.6 per 100,000).

Graph: Serious Mental Illness in Past Year by Age and Sex[d]

Graph: Suicide Death Rates for Females by Race/Ethnicity[d]

1The National Survey of Drug Use and Health defines serious mental illness as “having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that met the DSM-IV criteria and resulted in functional impairment that substantially interfered with or limited one or more major life activities.”

2 Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM, Bunney WE, editors. (2002) Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative. Committee on Pathophysiology and Prevention of Adolescent and Adult Suicide, Board on Neuroscience and Behavioral Health, Institute of Medicine.