According to certain measures (such as the number of people who qualify for Federal Goverment disability payments), the number of adults in this country who are mentally ill has risen 2.5 times over the past twenty years.
For children, the comparable figures are simply stunning. The number of children diagnosed as mentally ill today is 35 times greater than two decades ago.
This startling increase in the number of people diagnosed with mental illness in recent years has come to be called the mental illness “epidemic.” It raises a number of concerns.
First, is the “epidemic” real? Is it true that so many more people today suffer from mental illness than used to be the case? If so, why is that?
On the other hand, perhaps the “epidemic” is more apparent than real. But then, how can we explain the statistics cited above?
One explanation might be that we are much better today at diagnosing mental illness than we used to be. On this view, lots of people who suffered from mental illness before simply used to go untreated.
But there is another explanation that has begun to gain prominence, and is now the subject of widespread debate. Namely, some authorities claim that we have simply redefined much normal behavior as mental illness. That is, people who might once have been seen as difficult or different or eccentric are now viewed as requiring medical intervention.
For example, fifty years ago no one would have thought that there was anything unusual in the fact that a young boy might have trouble staying in his seat and concentrating in a classroom for long periods of time. It was understood that this was to be expected. The solution was to allow children to run around at recess several times a day. Now, with recess abolished, restless boys are diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and given Ritalin.
For a fascinating discussion of these issues, see this recent article by Marcia Angell, M.D., Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School and former Editor-in-Chief of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In a nutshell, Dr. Angell argues that the mental illness “epidemic” is driven by the desire of the giant pharmaceutical companies to maximize their profits.
For a lively and in-depth exploration of this issue on video, watch the following Bloggingheads debate between noted science journalists, John Horgan, author of The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (Basic Books, 1996), and George Johnson, author of Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order (Knopf, 1995).
This “debate” is really more of an unusually well-informed conversation between friends, but overall Mr. Horgan is more skeptical about the reality of a recent mental illness “epidemic,” while Mr. Johnson is more sympathetic toward mainstream medical opinion on this topic.
For a related post on TheBestSchools.org, go here.