NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Data Over-Estimate the Mentally Ill in America

February 18, 2002

On their face alone, the figures are suspicious. "When people look at figures that say close to 30 percent of the American public has a mental disorder and therefore needs treatment, most would say that is implausibly too high," says William E. Narrow, head author of a new study which finds that figure grossly overstated.

Narrow, director of the psychopathology program at the American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education, has come up with his own estimates.

  • Two large surveys have been used for years to estimate the need for treatment of mental and addictive disorders.
  • Those data come from the National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area Program (1980-85), and the National Comorbidity Survey (1990-92).
  • These older surveys suggest that in a given year almost 30 percent of American adults experience mental or addictive disorders and that nearly 50 percent need mental health services in their lifetime.
  • But researchers in Narrow's study re-evaluated both surveys and put the proportion of adults who had a disorder in a given year at 18.5 percent -- a decrease of about 19.2 million people.

The methodology of the new study differed from that of the two older studies in that it tried to determine whether respondents had talked to professionals, taken medication for their symptoms or had symptoms that interfered substantially with their lives. The previous surveys assumed that if a person had symptoms, treatment was needed.

In other words, the new analysis addresses who needs treatment -- not how many people have disorders.

Source: Associated Press, "Estimates of Mentally Ill Too High, Study Says," New York Times, February 17, 2002; William E. Narrow et al., "Revised Prevalence Estimates of Mental Disorders in the United States," 2002, American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education, Washington, D.C.


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