Are We Living in the Age of Mental Illness?

Think you're living in the Age of Information? Think again.

Posted Apr 23, 2010

     Think of how America has changed since the 1930s. Ask people to consider this and you'll get a standard set of responses: computers, the Internet, and lasers (at least that's what Nassim Taleb thinks people will tell you, events he calls Black Swans). Some people will talk about disco, while others will talk about living in the Age of the iPod. Not one of them will tell you that we're living in the Age of Mental Illness--or that a loss of social connection might be the culprit.
     It's not entirely new to talk about the decline of mental health. About 20 years ago, researchers showed that symptoms of major depressive disorder were on the rise. Whereas around 1 or 2 out of every hundred people born in the early 1900s suffered from depression, that number jumped 1500% for people born after 1950. That's shocking!
     But it might not be that simple. Some of the studies relied on people's memories of past depressive episodes, leaving open the question of whether elderly people accurately remembered the episode or minimized them over time. Depressed people, on average, don't live as long as non-depressed people do, so it's also possible that there were simply fewer elderly depressed people living for the researchers to find. What might be more convincing would involve inspecting how people of around the same age (say, high school and college students) respond to the same mental illness questionnaire over a long period of time.
    My colleagues and I recently did this, in a paper published in last month's issue of Clinical Psychology Review. We did something called a meta-analysis (literally analysis of analysis), using scores from college and high school students on one of the most widely used and validated methods of measuring mental illness: the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
     Some of you have probably taken the MMPI. I took it once as part of a job application (I didn't get the job). It's got a ton of questions, nearly all of which don't seem relevant to your mental health (how does rating your level of agreement with the statement "I like flowers" have anything to do with your mental wellbeing). Don't be fooled; the MMPI has laser accuracy in detecting mental illness. (Hint: Don't try to fake your answers either; they've got a scale to detect liars.) We wanted to see how MMPI scored changed between 1938 and 2007 (with a shade over 76,000 total participants), which would provide a definite estimate of generational changes in mental illness.
     We were shocked at the results. 85% of current college students have worse mental health than college students in the 1930-1940s. The results were similar with high school students, suggesting that the changes weren't due to shifts in college enrollment. You can't duck the problem by not being in college.
     Why is this happening? To be sure, it's got nothing to do with humans changing biologically. Evolution is an incredibly slow process. 70 years is less than an eye blink in Mother Nature's eyes. What's more likely is that our society has changed in ways that unintentionally (or, in some cases intentionally) damages mental health.
     One contributor to the problem is that people today feel more socially disconnected than ever before. Most people don't know their neighbors, they believe having close connections makes you appear "weak," and they focus on "getting ahead" at the expense of spending time with friends, family, or other close relationship partners. Feelings of social disconnection have risen 250% over the past 20 years alone. See a connection between generational changes in mental illness and changes in social disconnection? If you did, you've got a future in research. In our paper, we found that markers of social disconnection (e.g., the divorce rate) corresponded to generational changes in mental illness.
     We know that social disconnection is a killer. It harms people as much as smoking or obesity. The first step to getting out of the Age of Mental Illness is to maintain positive and lasting relationships in your life. Although Joe Cocker can't be considered a brilliant (or even an amateur) psychologist, he had it right when he said "could get by with a little help from my friends."