Startling Report on Spike in Mental Health Woes Fuels Skepticism
The statistics on mental health raise all kinds of questions. There are questions about the validity of diagnoses; some people wonder if Americans, children especially, are taking too many prescription medications and not getting enough therapy; others see a suspicious connection between the rise in diagnoses and medications and the amount of money pharmaceutical companies are making.
The report from the CDC made one startling finding: one in five kids in this country has a mental illness. However, that number is raising many questions about how the government came up with it and how much it really tells us about the state of mental health. For instance, the methods used for counting the mental illnesses among children included looking at parent reports, reports from children themselves, and the results of a national health telephone survey.
The CDC report is not the only one giving us facts about mental health among Americans. Another report, based in New Jersey, recently found that one in six adults in that state takes prescription medications for psychological or behavioral problems. This represents a 22 percent increase over the last decade and it mimics trends seen across the country. The report also found that American women are taking these medications at an even higher rate. More than one-quarter of all women take some kind of mental health drug.
Behind the Numbers
One important point that the recent reports raise is the issue of diagnoses. The increase in mental illness among Americans, at first glance, would seem to indicate that we are less well than we have ever been. However, it could mean something else. It could simply mean that professionals are making more diagnoses because they are getting better at doing so.
It is also possible that the numbers found in the CDC report are underestimated. For instance, one finding was that ADHD diagnoses were higher among children whose parents had health insurance than those that did not. This means that rate of ADHD in children may be related to the ability of parents to afford to get a diagnosis. If this is true, many of the mental illnesses in the report could actually be occurring at higher rates.
Another concern raised by the new facts about mental health is the prevalence of prescription medications as a treatment method. Along with the rise in diagnoses of mental illness is a rise in the number of drugs being prescribed and used. The business of mental health involves a lot of money, especially for those making and selling the medications. Healthcare for mental illness is a $113 billion industry and one-third of that is spent on drugs. Television ads for medications, especially those that target depression or anxiety, are one way that drug companies have been able to increase awareness of their products.
While prescription drugs for mental illness have helped many people, some also fear they may be overprescribed and used as a quick fix. Decreased public funding in many places may be responsible for this trend. It is ultimately cheaper to treat on an outpatient basis and to rely primarily on medications. Combining drugs with therapy, and even a stay in a mental health facility, gives a patient more comprehensive care and better skills for coping with a mental illness. This approach, however, costs more money.
In some cases, medications may be prescribed when they are not really needed. Physicians may be overprescribing drugs for mental illness when there could be a physiological problem, such as hormonal changes, underlying the symptoms. Among children, behavioral problems are often quickly assigned to a disorder such as autism or ADHD. Drugs are then the likely choice for treating the named disorder. Compared with other Western countries, such as the U.K. and France, American children have far more ADHD diagnoses and take more medications.
The reports that tell us how many adults and children are being diagnosed and medicated for mental illness are important in that they alert us to trends. They also raise important points for discussion, such as how diagnoses are performed and why, the treatments that are administered, and the motives of pharmaceutical companies. It is also important to remember that the numbers themselves are questionable. To truly sort out what it all means will take time and more research.