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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

USA Number One

An exhaustive $20 million study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health and based on a sampling of 9,000 randomly selected people has concluded what should have been apparent to anyone after the last Presidential election -- half of all Americans are mentally ill.

Cheap joke. But still:
The survey focused on four major categories of mental illness: anxiety disorders (such as panic and post-traumatic stress disorders); mood disorders (such as major depression and bipolar disease); impulse control disorders (such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder); and substance abuse.

Almost half of Americans meet the criteria for such an illness at some point in their lives, the survey found. Most cases are mild and probably do not require treatment. But every year about 6 percent of adults are so seriously affected that they cannot perform even routine activities for periods averaging three months. Because schizophrenia, autism, and some other severe and relatively common disorders were not included, actual prevalence rates are somewhat higher.
Parallel studies in 27 other countries are not yet complete, but researchers believe the US is going to be hard to beat out for the #1 for mental illness spot.

I really have no idea why rates in the US are so high, but it does seem to be so. Once you become sensitive to the appearance of addictive symptoms (which are almost always themselves symptoms of untreated mental illness such as depression), you see them everywhere. (MandT over at Adgita Diaries has a great post on Christian fundamentalism as an addiction.) Is it stress? Alienation? Mickey Ds?

The researchers don't have any conclusions, but they do note that immigrants are at higher risk for mental health problems, especially if they don't live in native ethnic communities. On the other hand, minorities generally display lower levels of mental health disorders, despite lower economic status. They speculate that these results may be due to social support (or lack thereof).

I have a slightly different theory (*cough*). Michael Ventura wrote this article several years ago, and I'm sorry I don't think it's online so I will have to paraphrase from an admittedly faulty memory, but he commented on the fact that at the turn of the 20th century the average person just didn't have to make the rapid, complex mental calculations that it took to change lanes on a freeway (assessing the speed of the cars in the next lane, accelerating at a rate that will allow you to merge, checking a variety of mirrors and compensating for blind spots, etc.) as a matter of course. And if I still did drugs I'd try to explain Alan Moore's theory about the ever-accelerating rate at which information is doubling, but that is nothing I would ever attempt sober.

Anyway, the point is that I suspect the rate of change that people now have to deal with is putting increasing numbers into overload, especially in the US where technological change gets integrated into our daily lives so quickly, and we simply haven't developed the cultural tools to help us adapt. (And the guilt/anxiety over being global colonial robber barons probably isn't helping anything.) The people who would experience the most change would be those uprooted from one culture into another, and those who experience the least would be from more traditional communities that are slower to adopt change into their lifestyle.

The study also found that less than half of those who need mental health help ever get it, and even then the treatment they receive is usually inadequate. I've got say, I'm a bit freaked out by the fact that an exorbitantly high percentage of the people in this country are running around with untreated mental illness. I've taken off my tin foil hat for the evening so I am not even going to suggest that Pfizer will use this as an excuse to start putting Zoloft into the water. But feel free to raise the possibility yourself in the comments.

(And I can't write about depression without putting in a plug for Joel's excellent blog, Pax Nortana, where he quite eloquently and with great sensitivity deals with the topic on a regular basis.)

(Photo courtesy stock.xchng)

Update: Okay the Columbia Journalism Review is asking the Pfizer question, and notes that much of the tab for the study was picked up by the pharmaceutical industry.