Stats for Dummies: Mental Health Edition

In the last 3 years, the estimated rate of autism prevalence in the U.S. has increased from 1 in every 88 children to 1 in every 68 children. Based on these numbers, the current panic about autism should be entirely justified. In fact, more panic would even be justified. Autism isn’t the only mental illness that appears to be in the midst of a huge surge either. Some estimates say that if depression keeps increasing at its current rate, it will be the second most disabling condition in the world by 2020. Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for childhood eating disorders increased 119%.

Are we all just becoming more mentally ill? Is the human race about to fall apart due to mental instability? Is it because of vaccines? OR SMARTPHONES?

Let’s all take a minute to breathe and think about facts for a brief moment (I know, this is the internet and we’re not supposed to do that here, but bear with me for a minute).

What we can say with certainty about these statistics is that the recorded diagnoses for these mental illnesses are on the rise. What we can’t say with certainty is that there are more people with these mental illnesses today than there were ten years ago. There are some seriously complicated factors that go into how we collect the data that’s used in these rates, so using them as a reason to freak out and draw some sort of awful conclusion (we’re in the midst of an epidemic, no one get vaccines anymore, everyone today is just too much of a sissy, modern life is alienating and awful, ADHD is really just a fake disorder and when I was a kid we called it being rowdy, eating disorders are caused by skinny models) doesn’t really get at what has caused these diagnostic rates to increase.

There are lots of things that go into the diagnosis rate that aren’t simply whether a disorder is present or not. Increases in diagnosis could be caused by better services and better access to services. It could be caused by a better understanding of symptoms, which makes it easier for providers to diagnose. It could be related to changing diagnostic criteria (in the most recent DSM update, just a couple years ago, both eating disorders and autism spectrum disorders got major overhauls that likely resulted in an uptick in diagnoses).

It can also be related to whether or not the diagnostic criteria are clearly written and understood by providers, as well as by the general population. If more people know what depression looks like, they’ll be more likely to encourage friends or family to see a doctor or therapist if they notice signs, or to go seek help themselves. It could also be a sign of diminished stigma. For many people admitting depression is a sign of weakness, but hopefully as we educate people better about what mental illness actually is, more people will be willing to take care of their health.

Finally, the increase is also likely related to an increase in acceptance of mental health problems as legitimate issues. While there are still many people who hear “it’s all in your head,” or “just try smiling,” it’s becoming less and less acceptable to write off someone else’s mental illness because you don’t believe mental illness is a real problem. That means more support and more people seeking out help, which puts more people into the systems that can count them.

All of these things are also connected with race, gender, religion, socio-economic status, and all the other factors that affect whether someone can or will interact with the medical system and receive appropriate services. All of this is to say that when interacting with claims about mental health, particularly alarmist claims that tell you to be very, very afraid of a mental illness or disorder, be careful with your stats.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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One Comment

  1. There are a LOT of explanations. Better mental health care, or simply changing the diagnostic criteria. Just to mention two easy ones.

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