Abnormal is the new normal — at least for mental health. Only a small share of the population stays mentally healthy from age 11 to 38. Everyone else experiences a mental illness at some point, a new study finds.
“For many, an episode of mental disorder is like influenza, bronchitis, kidney stones, a broken bone or other [common] conditions,” says Jonathan Schaefer. He is a psychologist at Duke University. A coauthor of the study, he notes that “Sufferers experience impaired functioning. Many seek medical care, but most recover.”
The study looked at 988 people who lived in New Zealand. Only 171 — or about one in six people —experienced no anxiety disorders, depression or other mental ailments from late childhood to middle age. Of the rest, half experienced a mental disorder that lasted a short time. This was typically just a bout of depression, anxiety or substance abuse. The person then recovered.
The remaining 408 people — roughly two out of every five — experienced one or more mental disorders that lasted at least several years. Their diagnoses included more severe conditions. These may have included bipolar and psychotic disorders.
Schaefer and his colleagues shared their findings in the February Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
By the numbers…
The researchers analyzed data on people born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Each person’s general health and behavior was assessed 13 times from birth to age 38. Mental health was assessed eight times from age 11 onward.
Previous studies had linked several traits with a lower chance of developing mental disorders. These included growing up in an unusually well-off family and enjoying really good physical health. Scoring very high on intelligence tests also has been linked to good mental health. Surprisingly, however, the New Zealanders who stayed mentally healthy scored…