One Sick Prognosis

Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.

From Today’s WASHINGTON TIMES (January 7, 2009)


“Almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year.”

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That is the main result of a widely publicized, allegedly scientific study just printed in the December, 2008, issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, a highly prestigious publication of the American Medical Association.

The data comes from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions and includes such tendentious and questionable categories as “nicotine dependence” and “social anxiety disorder.” The mental health community uses the terms “psychiatric disorder” and “mental illness” selectively. In its research it is usually the former because researchers are not dealing with somatic illnesses. In public discourse it is often the latter because “mental illness” is a little scarier than “psychiatric disorder.” Some major media referred to these studies as revealing high levels of “psychiatric illnesses.”

The finding that about 46 percent of college students have been mentally disturbed or mentally ill over the last year is a major increase from decades ago, when the more typical figures were 18 percent to 23 percent. At that time, many critics argued that the numbers were infinitely inflatable because there were no pathological measures necessary to validate the numbers.

In the ARCHIVES is this introductory point: 91.6 percent of respondents to a national survey of “Counseling Center Directors,” “believe that the number of students with severe psychological problems has increased in recent years.” This, despite the disjunction between the fact that the survey – all diagnoses were made using a “diagnostic interview designed for use by professional interviewers who are not clinicians” – was taken in 2001-02, and there is no empirical evidence for such conjecture.

Let me provide just one anecdotal piece of evidence, evidence which is equally valuable as the non-evidentiary speculation above. I have had more than 300 students a year in my classes, and in the past five years I have had no more than two or three disruptive or even badly behaving ones. More than one percent of students’ severe psychological problems would surely reveal themselves in classes from time to time.

And then there is the economic motive of the researchers. The study concludes by warning that we have no time to waste before getting students into treatment: “Urgent action is needed to increase detection and treatment of psychiatric disorders among college students and their non-college-attending peers.” Why? What has occurred in the last six to seven years implying such a rush to therapy?

One can certainly understand the financial pressures at this time on mental health professionals and even the possibility that they believe their own propaganda. Within the last few years one of the gargantuan guesses respecting the increases in mental illness came from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), that over 55 percent of the American population was suffering from some mental illness over a lifetime. This conclusion came, according to a June 7, 2005, article in the New York Times titled “Most Will Be Mentally Ill at Some Point,” at a time conducive to complementing NIMH’s efforts to promote lucrative screening and treatment for mental illness among all ages. Regarding the claim of over 55 percent of Americans’ suffering from mental illness, Dr. Paul McHugh, the well-respected former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, incredulously and famously stated, “Fifty-percent of Americans mentally impaired – are you kidding me?”

There is no limit to the ever-growing estimations of mental disorders in our populations because there is no way to disconfirm them. We are now up to half of all young people seen as diseased, within a given year. Soon it will be that “we are all mentally ill and urgently need [costly] pills and counseling.”

Those of us who have dealt with young people in colleges and universities for decades know that two of the most important values to teach students are: (1) the avoidance of dependency and (2) the assumption of responsibility.

The psychiatric disordering of young people counters those two critically important lessons.

Richard E. Vatz is a professor at Towson University and associate psychology editor of USA Today Magazine.

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