Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Half of College-Aged Adults are Mentally Ill... Right?

In an astonishing study published in this month's Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers found that nearly 50% of college-aged adults in the US struggle with some sort of mental health or chemical dependency issue.
A team led by Dr. Mark Olfson, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, mined the data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. The college-aged group was then split between students and non-students.
Among those in school, the team detected 20% of the college-age adults wrestled with alcohol issues followed by a startling 18% displaying personality disorders. Among the non-students, nicotine dependence and personality disorders topped the list. Meanwhile, mood disorders surfaced in a relatively paltry 11% for students and 12% for those out of school.
The findings are staggering for the simple fact that they turn conventional wisdom on its head. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV), the bible of the metal health industry, Borderline Personality Disorder has been estimated to affect nearly 2% of the general population, Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder shows up in about 1% and Narcissistic Personality Disorder trails them both, presenting in less than 1% of us.
Meanwhile,the same DSM-IV finds 1%-3% of us experiencing the symptoms of panic or generalized anxiety disorders. Even depression is believed to affect less than 10% of the general population.
This study's breathtaking findings can only lead us to conclude either we have an extraordinarily sick generation coming of age, or the study is flawed. Perhaps the devil is in the design. The data for the 2001-2002 study were gathered from face-to-face interviews and the current study's authors deconstructed their information. The real questions revolve around diagnosis versus presenting symptoms. Had those interviewed been formally diagnosed with the conditions reported? Or had they scored in certain ways on psychological testing scales during the survey? Given that only 25% of those surveyed actually sought out mental health treatment, one would be tempted to assume that their conclusions are based on series of questionnaires and behavioral scales. Today's study would be tenuous at best.
Until knowing the full design of the 2001 study and thereby making an informed conclusion, I for one will remain in blissful ignorance of the more alarming alternative.
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