Common mental disorders may be more common than we think

Sep 10, 2009

The prevalence of anxiety, depression and substance dependency may be twice as high as the mental health community has been led to believe.

It depends on how one goes about measuring.

Duke University psychologists Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi and colleagues from the United Kingdom and New Zealand used a long-term tracking study of more than 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to age 32 to reach the conclusion that people vastly underreport the amount of mental illness they've suffered when asked to recall their history years after the fact.

But such self-reporting from memory is the basis of much of what we know about the prevalence of anxiety, depression, alcohol dependence and marijuana dependence. Longitudinal studies like the Dunedin Study in New Zealand that track people over time are rare and expensive, Moffitt said.

"If you start with a group of children and follow them their whole lives, sooner or later almost everybody will experience one of these disorders," said Moffitt, the Knut Schmitt-Nielsen professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

The Great Smoky Mountains Study, a similar effort based at Duke, has tracked 1,400 American children from age 9-13 into their late 20s and found similar patterns, said Jane Costello, a professor medical psychology at Duke who runs the study.

"I think we've got to get used to the idea that mental illness is actually very common," Costello said. "People are growing up impaired, untreated and not functioning to their full capacity because we've ignored it."

The prevalence of mental illness has been hotly debated by policy makers and mental health providers for many years. The pharmaceutical and health insurance industries also have a stake in the debate, Moffitt said.

The best retrospective studies, the US National Comorbidity Surveys (NCS) and the New Zealand Mental Health Survey, have found the incidence of depression from ages 18 to 32 at a rate of about 18 percent. But they have been roundly criticized by some for their rates being too high. The latest analysis from the Dunedin Study found 41 percent of that age range had experienced clinically significant depression.

Similarly, the survey studies have reported a 6 to 17 percent lifetime rate of alcohol dependence between ages 18-32, versus nearly 32 percent in the Dunedin Study.

Guidelines published by the American Psychiatric Association that set the bar for defining what is and isn't a treatable illness are currently being revised by a rewriting of the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But given the findings of these longitudinal studies, the stringency of the diagnostic criteria might need to be reconsidered, said Moffitt, who is on the committee writing the new DSM-Vstandards.

"Researchers might begin to ask why so many people experience a disorder at least once during their lifetimes and what this means for the way we define mental health, deliver services and count the economic burdens of mental illness," Moffitt said.

On the one hand, it could be argued that the diagnostic standards have been set too low if so many people can be considered mentally ill. On the other hand, perhaps these findings argue for more and better mental health care because the disorders are more common than anyone had realized.

"There are two opposing camps, and I'm agnostic about that," Moffitt said.

At the very least, maybe these findings can help reduce the stigma against and mental health care, Moffitt added. New Zealand, for example, has begun a new campaign of public service announcements featuring sports heroes saying they've experienced issues.

"If we're serious about this problem, we need to get serious about preventing it," Costello added. "We do know a lot more about prevention now."

Source: Duke University (news : web)

Explore further: Homeless, mentally ill women face vicious cycle in India

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mental disorders and exposure to war in Lebanon

Apr 01, 2008

In the first study in the Arab world to document mental illness and treatment on a national level, researchers from Lebanon have described the prevalence of mental disorders and their relation to exposure to war.

Research investment failing mental health

Oct 03, 2008

More money and effort needs to be directed to understanding the causes and treatment of mental disorders to ensure improvements in the health of the community and the one in five people that experience mental illness in any ...

Researchers explore marijuana and mental health

Oct 08, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of mental health experts from the University of Western Sydney say young people who have developed a dependence on cannabis are likely to continue using the drug following the diagnosis of a mental ...

Recommended for you

Elderly brains learn, but maybe too much

50 minutes ago

A new study led by Brown University reports that older learners retained the mental flexibility needed to learn a visual perception task but were not as good as younger people at filtering out irrelevant ...

Inpatient psychotherapy is effective in Germany

3 hours ago

Sarah Liebherz (Department of Medical Psychology, University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf) and Sven Rabung (Institute of Psychology, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt) have examined 59 studies conducted between 1977 ...

A game changer to boost literacy and maths skills

5 hours ago

(Medical Xpress)—Finding the best way to teach reading has been an ongoing challenge for decades, especially for those children in underprivileged areas who fail to learn to read. What is the magic ingredient that will ...

How do we make moral judgements?

6 hours ago

In a target article published in the current issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) Neuroscience, Université de Montréal and IRCM neuroethics experts open the black box of moral intuitions by suggesting a new ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

docknowledge
not rated yet Sep 10, 2009
Yep. My mother was a professional. This idea that mental illness is limited to a very few is absolutely wrong.

And to add insult to injury, we were driving one day; I said "That guy must be on drugs!" Mother answers calmly, "He probably is." 1-in-5 drivers are somehow compromised. So she said.

So...combine the mentally ill, and those severely affected by drugs...it's a jungle out there.
defunctdiety
not rated yet Sep 10, 2009
Come on, doc, did ya notice the big fat ad from a pharmacy company in the middle of this page, it's quite the stark reminder of the motive behind this study/findings.

You aren't normal! Buy our drugs! There's no need to take responsibility for your life and state of mind!
NonRational
not rated yet Sep 11, 2009
Yep, another cynical person who believes everything is conquerable by willpower alone, and thus if you are sick you are being irresponsible with your mind. Well guess what defunctdiety, you should reexamine your defunct belief in total free will. It does not exist. Total freedom is impossible when you have the human condition...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.