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One in Four Revisited

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticNovember 16, 2011 6:46 PM


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In a recent

Telegraph article

, professional contrarian Brendan O'Neill argues against the idea that one in four people experience mental illness - and indeed against the idea that one in four people are bullied, abused or whatever else:

Can it really be true that a quarter of Brits are bullied or beaten up at home or are mentally ill, or is this simply a case of social campaigners exaggerating how bad life is in order that they can continue to make headlines, make an impact, and get funding? I reckon it's the latter. Next time you see the "one in four" figure, be very sceptical – it's probably Dickensian-style doom-mongering disguised as social research, where the aim is to convince us, against the evidence of our own eyes and ears, that loads of the people we encounter everyday are basket cases in need of rescue.

I say "argues against", but he doesn't actually provide any arguments. He just links to the claims and says they're silly.


As Neuroskeptic readers know, I am myselfskepticalof the idea that one in four people are mentally ill, but I'm skeptical of it because I've looked at the evidence and it doesn't support that figure. Actually, if you take the available evidence at face value, it says that the true figure for the lifetime prevalence is much higher than one in four. I don't think those figures are very useful however because of various methodological issues.

So in my view we just don't know how many people are mentally ill, largely because we don't have any clear definition of what "mentally ill" means. But that doesn't mean we can just assume that it can't possibly be one in four just because "our own eyes and ears" tell us that most people are not "basket cases".

Much mental illness goes undiagnosed and unnoticed, and I'd imagine also that Brendan O'Neill and the kind of people who read him don't tend to "encounter everyday" people from groups such as the unemployed, the elderly and so forth, in whom the rates are higher.

But even beyond that, it's a silly argument because of selection bias. If you as a healthy person encounter someone everyday, chances are they're not severely ill - mentally or physically - because if they were, they'd be less likely to be around in places for you to encounter. Unless you're a doctor or whatever, you live your life in the world of healthy people.

It's like saying that you don't believe children or the elderly exist, because in your life as a working age adult, you never meet any of them.

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