Defining an era. Uh, or was it error?

The poet W.H. Auden characterized his age, given frequent visits with the psychoanalyst, as the Age of Anxiety. Now an assistant psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, in a Psychology Today blog, queries whether or not we have entered the Age of Mental Illness.

If, as C. Nathan DeWall suggests, we have gone from anxiety to mental illness, I wouldn’t imagine you could call that an improvement.

The blog post is Are We Living in the Age of Mental Illness? And in it he makes the following observation.

It’s not entirely new to talk about the decline of mental health. About 20 years ago, researchers showed that symptoms of major depressive disorder were on the rise. Whereas around 1 or 2 out of every hundred people born in the early 1900s suffered from depression, that number jumped 1500% for people born after 1950. That’s shocking!

Hmm. What could be making people “sick”?

I’ve made the same point about the serious mental illness label, of which major depression is but one ‘brand’. I can also find a few reasons for this sharp incline. ADHD, for instance, a virtually non-existent condition years ago has gained momentum as a diagnosis, and out of such diagnoses come other diagnoses. Label what once was typical childhood behavior ‘sick’, develop a drug to treat this behavior, and you’ve made your windfall.

Abuse of the stimulants used to manage the symptoms (childhood behavior) of ADHD can lead to psychosis, and yet another diagnosis. This ADHD diagnosis was further modified when certain mental health professionals decided not that long ago that some of these ADHD kids were not actually ADHD kids at all, but were in fact early onset bipolar disorder kids. The result of this change of label was that the rate of bipolar disorder diagnosis climbed 40 fold. This development in turn has led to an altogether new label being proposed for the revised DSM 5 set to be published in 2013, temper dysregulation disorder with dysporia, or TDD. It seems you can’t correct a mistake without further compounding it.

Mr. DeWall and his colleagues did a meta-analysis of college and high school students’ results from taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test. MMPI results were compared from the years 1938 to 2007, and involving 76,000 participants. He credits the MMPI with “having laser accuracy in detecting mental illness”.

I would question whether there can be any accurate litmus test for whether a person is looney tunes or not, but then that’s me.

We were shocked at the results. 85% of current college students have worse mental health than college students in the 1930-1940s. The results were similar with high school students, suggesting that the changes weren’t due to shifts in college enrollment. You can’t duck the problem by not being in college.

I can’t be at all surprised by this result. It begins with a suicide or 2 in an area, an enterprise that is achieving increasing popularity. The public outcry over the media relaying of information involved in these deaths facilitates mental health screening. Mental health screening tests have notoriously high false positive rates, way up in the 80 and 90% range. This screening is going to mean a rise in the overall mental illness rate.

Add to this drug company manipulations and promotions, mental health centers seeking to drum up business, direct to consumer advertising, anti-stigma campaigns, and what’s a student to do? Become a poster child of the mentally ill generation? It happens.

The author of this piece offers his own reasons for the sharp incline.

One contributor to the problem is that people today feel more socially disconnected than ever before. Most people don’t know their neighbors, they believe having close connections makes you appear “weak,” and they focus on “getting ahead” at the expense of spending time with friends, family, or other close relationship partners. Feelings of social disconnection have risen 250% over the past 20 years alone. See a connection between generational changes in mental illness and changes in social disconnection? If you did, you’ve got a future in research. In our paper, we found that markers of social disconnection (e.g., the divorce rate) corresponded to generational changes in mental illness.

You can get ahead at the expense of your peers, yes, that was always a problem, wasn’t it, and now it’s getting worse. In the Not Only Department, now you’ve got successful career mental patient mental health advocates making the speakers circuit these days. On top of this factor of today’s environment, you have the many more non-successful mental patients unable to make a career out of “disability”. Oh, well. There are always thrift stores, mop buckets, and dish rags.

He ends his article with a cap off to Joe Cocker singing A Little Help from My Friends. Yep, I suppose that works, if you’ve got friends, and preferably rich and powerful friends. On the other hand, some of us manage the more heroic task of making a go of it alone.

I’m more than ready for whatever age should follow the Age of Mental Illness in advance.