Two news stories over the long holiday weekend made the rounds about the prevalence of mental disorders in Americans and Europeans. Virtually all the news stories I’ve read completely missed important information contained within the actual reports, instead doing more reporting on the news release rather than the research itself.
I previously wrote about the CDC’s report, which contrary to headlines in newspapers such as USA Today, HealthDay, the International Business Times and others, did not report on any new data that “half of Americans will suffer from mental disorders” (data that comes from a 2004 study — 7-year old news anyone?). Approximately 25 percent of Americans may have a mental disorder — as measured by the CDC surveys — in any given year.
The European study was based upon actual research and suggested that today, up to 38 percent of Europeans may be suffering from a mental disorder — a seeming 50 percent increase over Americans. The two datasets are not directly comparable, however, since they used different methodology to arrive at their numbers.
But it appears only a few reporters bothered to read the study before reporting on it, because many simply reported on the European study with little context or understanding of its data.
Some media simply didn’t read the study. Deutsche Welle suggests “Mental disorders are on the rise in Europe:”
The biggest study of its kind yet in Europe has revealed that mental health issues are on the rise, with 38 percent of Europeans suffering at some point in their lives.
In fact, the study demonstrated no such rise in mental disorders. For the disorders tracked in an earlier 2005 study by the same authors, prevalence rates decreased from 27.4 to 27.1 percent. The reason for the “38 percent” number is simply because the researchers decided to start tracking 14 additional diagnoses — including some big ones like ADHD, dementia and sleep problems (which accounted for 8.3 of the 11.1 percent difference).
The Daily Mail was happy to just repeat whatever the lead researcher, Professor Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, told them. Apparently since there was no sexy increase in mental disorders over the past 6 years, Prof. Wittchen simply reached back to the 1970s — over 40 years ago! — and used that as a comparison reference:
‘We have seen compared to the 1970s a doubling of depressive episodes amongst females.
‘It happened in the 1980s and 1990s, there are no further increases now.
‘It’s now levelling off, it’s pretty much stabilised but it’s much much higher than the 1970s.’
Yeah, so? In the 1970s, we were using the DSM-II for diagnosis of mental disorders — a highly unreliable diagnostic tool. It wasn’t until the DSM-III in the 1980s that diagnoses were standardized and based upon more research-driven criteria. Europeans wouldn’t have even been using the DSM-II, however, since it was a U.S.-based system. They would’ve used the ICD-8, developed in 1965. Needless to say, our understanding of mental disorders — and the significant amount of greater stigma they carried — in the 1970s was a far cry from what it is today. It’s an inappropriate comparison to make. But I guess if the lead researcher wants to say it, some newspaper will report it as fact without blinking a critical eye at it.
Reuters’ Kate Kelland apparently also didn’t read the study:
The last major European study of brain disorders, which was published in 2005 and covered a smaller population of about 301 million people, found 27 percent of the EU adult population was suffering from mental illnesses.
Although the 2005 study cannot be compared directly with the latest finding — the scope and population was different…
Actually, the researchers expended quite a lot of ink in their study comparing their 2011 data with their 2005 data. Even a cursory look at the study would’ve shown as much. Doh!
Some media are mute on the issue of putting the number into some sort of context — which would be so easy to do with the CDC report just released. The Guardian‘s report doesn’t even mention whether this number is trending upward or downward.
At least the Associated Press noted that rates of mental illness in Europe remain unchanged from the 2005 study:
Rates of mental disorders didn’t appear to be rising, compared to a similar study in 2005.
But that’s buried in the third paragraph of a four paragraph article. Nature news does little better — it also buries the lack of change in European mental disorder prevalence rates in the very last paragraph in an 11 paragraph story.
Sadly, most American media aren’t even publishing a news story about the European data. Apparently what happens in the rest of the world just isn’t of much concern to Americans.
I’m all for reporting on mental health research. But this is another example of why so many general news organizations can sometimes do a pretty sloppy job when it comes to disseminating research results and putting them into some sort of context. It’s important to compare apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and put data into context of overall trends and what it might mean to an individual. Failing to do so just makes things sound worse than they really are.
Our take on the European study: Study Finds Nearly 2 in 5 Europeans Suffer from Mental Disorders