Half of Us Are Mentally Ill (and the Other Half Are Undiagnosed)


In a New York Review of Books essay, Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, considers three books that take skeptical looks at "the epidemic of mental illness" sweeping the country:

The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from one in 184 Americans to one in seventy-six. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades….

A large survey of randomly selected adults, sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and conducted between 2001 and 2003, found that an astonishing 46 percent met criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for having had at least one mental illness within four broad categories at some time in their lives. 

Angell poses some questions about this epidemic:

Is the prevalence of mental illness really that high and still climbing? Particularly if these disorders are biologically determined and not a result of environmental influences, is it plausible to suppose that such an increase is real? Or are we learning to recognize and diagnose mental disorders that were always there? On the other hand, are we simply expanding the criteria for mental illness so that nearly everyone has one? And what about the drugs that are now the mainstay of treatment? Do they work? If they do, shouldn't we expect the prevalence of mental illness to be declining, not rising?

As those questions suggest, Angell seems to share the skepticism of the authors whose books she reviews: University of Hull psychologist Irving Kirsch, who in The Emperor's New Drugs shows that antidepressants are only slightly more effective than placebos, so slightly that the difference may be attributable to stronger expectations of improvement primed by the drugs' side effects; the journalist Robert Whitaker, who in Anatomy of an Epidemic argues that the "astonishing rise of mental illness in America" can be understood largely as an outgrowth of the desire to sell psychiatric drugs; and Daniel Carlat, a Boston psychiatrist who confesses his profession's shortcomings in Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry. Angell notes that "none of the three authors subscribes to the popular theory that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain." She adds that "the main problem with the theory is that after decades of trying to prove it, researchers have still come up empty-handed."

That may come as a surprise to uncritical viewers of pharmaceutical commercials or credulous readers of the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it is a truth acknowledged even by many psychiatrists, including the chief editor of the current DSM, who recently despaired that the attempt to define mental disorders is "bullshit." Despite psychiatry's medical pretensions, the equation of mental illnesses with brain diseases remains little more than an assumption. In fact, as Thomas Szasz observes in the preface to the 50th anniversary edition of The Myth of Mental Illness, once a particular pattern of behavior can be confidently ascribed to a physical defect, such as the brain damage caused by advanced syphilis or Alzheimer's disease, it is no longer considered a psychiatric issue. "Contemporary 'biological' psychiatrists tacitly recognized that mental illnesses are not, and cannot be, brain diseases," Szasz writes. "Once a putative disease becomes a proven disease, it ceases to be classified as a mental disorder and is reclassified as bodily disease."

Angell does not mention Szasz in the first installment of her essay, and I suspect he will be absent from the second part as well. It is OK to agree with Szasz about psychiatry's lack of scientific rigor as long as you do not acknowledge that you are agreeing with him. In an upcoming book review for Reason, I note that the renegade psychiatrist's ideas are routinely dismissed as obsolete at a time when they seem more relevant than ever.

[via Stanton Peele, who comments on Angell's review here]