Britain's Not Getting More Mentally Ill

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By Neuroskeptic
Jun 8, 2011 12:45 AMNov 5, 2019 12:15 AM


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There's a widespread belief that mental illness is getting more common, or that it has got more common in recent years.

A new study in the British Journal of Psychiatry says: no, it's not. They looked at the UK APMS mental health surveys, which were done in 1993, 2000 and 2007. Long-time readers will rememberthese.

The authors of the new paper analyzed the data by birth cohort, i.e. when you were born, and by age at the time of the survey. If mental illness were rising, you'd predict that people born more recently would have higher rates of mental illness at any given age.

The headline finding: there was no cohort effect, implying that rates of mental illness aren't changing. There was a strong age effect: in men, rates peak at about age 50; in women the data is rather messy but in general the rate is flat up to age 50 and then it falls off, like in men. But there's no evidence that those born recently are at higher risk.

The only exception was that men born after 1950 were at somewhat higher risk than those born earlier as shown by the "break" on the graph above. The effect for women was smaller. The most recent cohort, those born after 1985, were also above the curve but there was only one datapoint there, so it's hard to interpret.

We also get a rather cute graph showing how life changes with age:

As you get older, you get less irritable and, if you're a woman, you'll worry less. But sleep problems and, in men, fatigue, increase. Overall, 50 is the worst age in terms of total symptoms. After that, it gets better. Well, that's nice to know. Or not, depending on your age.

Overall, the authors say:

Our finding of subsequently stable rates contradicts popular media stories of a relentlessly rising tide of mental illness, at least for men. Stable prevalence in the male population, together with peaking of the prevalence of common mental disorder at about age 50 years, indicates that a large increase in projected rates of poor mental health is unlikely in the male population in the near future....

Trends in women are less clearly identified, with considerable increases in the prevalence of sleep problems, but no clear increase or even some decrease in other measures. Further research is needed to relate these age and cohort differences to drivers of mental health such as employment status and family composition.Caution's warranted, though, because the APMS data were based on self-reported symptoms of mental illness assessed by lay interviewers. As I've argued before, self-report is problematic, but this is true of almost all of these kinds of studies.

More unusual is that this study didn't attempt to assign formal diagnoses, it just looked at total symptoms on the CIS Scale; a total of 12 or more was considered to indicate "probable disorder".

Purists would say that this is a weakness and that you ought to be making full DSM-IV diagnoses, but honestly, it's got its own problems, and I think this is no worse.

Finally, this study only looked at "common mental disorders" i.e. depression and various kinds of anxiety symptoms. Things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder weren't included, but from what I remember they're not rising either.

Spiers N, Bebbington P, McManus S, Brugha TS, Jenkins R, & Meltzer H (2011). Age and birth cohort differences in the prevalence of common mental disorder in England: National Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys 1993-2007. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 198, 479-84 PMID: 21628710

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