Survey: Over Half of Americans Will Develop Mental Illness

The New York Times describes a study that’s provoking reactions for both its comprehensiveness and its results:

Most Will Be Mentally Ill at Some Point, Study Says

More than half of Americans will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives, often beginning in childhood or adolescence, researchers have found in a survey that experts say will have wide-ranging implications for the practice of psychiatry.

The survey is the most comprehensive in a series of censuslike mental health studies undertaken by the government. The findings of those studies are frequently cited by researchers, advocacy groups, policy makers and drug manufacturers to emphasize the importance of diagnosing and treating mental illness.

The earlier, less comprehensive surveys, which were published in 1984 and 1994 and which also found a high prevalence of mental illness, came under attack on the ground that they defined mental illness too broadly. Now, experts say, the new findings are sure to renew debate about whether mental illness can be reliably distinguished from garden-variety emotional struggles that are part of any life.

At least one expert considers the findings laughable:

“Fifty percent of Americans mentally impaired — are you kidding me?” said Dr. Paul McHugh, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

While the new survey was carefully done, Dr. McHugh said, “the problem is that the diagnostic manual we are using in psychiatry is like a field guide and it just keeps expanding and expanding.”

“Pretty soon,” he said, “we’ll have a syndrome for short, fat Irish guys with a Boston accent, and I’ll be mentally ill.”

Given Dr. McHugh’s, er, vivid imagery, one might be tempted to dismiss his viewpoint in favor of National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, the primary study sponsor whom the Times also quotes:

“The key point to remember is that mental disorders are highly prevalent and chronic.”

The study, Dr. Insel added, “demonstrates clearly that these really are the chronic disorders of young people in this country.”

But the article fails to note that Dr. Insel himself acknowledges some of the problems caused by expansive definitions of illnesses. See this report in yesterday’s Nature:

US Mental Survey Depresses Experts

The definition of disorders used by the study was quite broad. A few instances of road rage, for example, might qualify as an “intermittent explosive disorder”. Such a wide net may not be any use in determining who needs medication or treatment, says Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health and co-author of a commentary on the results.

If some forms of aggressive driving behavior are categorized as illnesses, then I’m inclined to be suspicious of the liberal definitions. But I may just be losing my mind.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Anderson says:

    Well, being physically ill includes having a cold, so it seems fair to apply “mentally ill” to whatever a corresponding level of impairment would be. 50% seems a rather low figure then.

    But that’s not what “mentally ill” conjures in our minds, obviously.

  2. DaveD says:

    I don’t think Dr. Thomas Insel would be quick to criticize the results of a study funded by his branch of the NIH. It would challenge the effectiveness of the peer-review process. But, come on, mental illness afflicting 50% of the US population. That has got to be a stretch. How do these results effect our outlook on legitimate syndromes of mental illness versus the interesting but trivial variety of human responses that arise as temporary coping mechanisms to life’s daily challenges?

  3. reliapundit says:

    the study is a JOKE!

    they did a SURVEY/poll of 9000 households – asking them EACH THREE (3) HOURS of questions!

    the surveyors got TWENTY MILLION BUCKS ($20,000,000) to do the survey.

    Why not just do a survey of prescriptions written for drugs whose benefits are for mental illness?
    It would be a more accurate – and cheaper – way to see where we’re at. (Maybe you can’t get a $20 MILLION grant for that!?)

    BTW: France leads the world in the per capita prescriptions of anti-depressants. (DON’T BELIEVE ME!? Google it yourself!)

  4. Jufray says:

    I developed a Mental Illness just from reading those survey results.

  5. herb says:

    Sooner or later the truth always comes to light. Most everyone knows that the half that are mentally ill are living in the state capitals of every state as well as in Washington D.C. They are called Politicians and Bureaucrats.

  6. bithead says:

    Well, there IS one point that adds validity to the study; Consider that the voting for Democrats the last two cycles, was at around 50%…

  7. Kent says:

    It’s enough to drive you nuts.

  8. Tresho says:

    In other news, a $1 billion study predicts every American will die, given enough time.