Are a third of the British really mentally ill?

Schizophrenia infographic

Schizophrenia infographic

“No, all of you are!” our US cousins may quip, but I’m sure they get told the same misleading information that we are fed for questionable ends.

There’s been quite a lot of press about mental illness in recent years with all sorts of celebs coming out as being mentally ill. They usually tell us that between one quarter and one third of British adults suffer from mental

illnesses (although some are more weaselly and say that number suffer ‘mental distress’, what the hell is that supposed to mean?). As someone with an admittedly very serious mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia (in case you didn’t know), this struck  me as one hell of a lot of people to be suffering even in a fraction of the way I do. So I looked up the numbers.

So, in an average year in a population of 1,000 normal British adults:

Approximately 300 will self report as having suffered from a mental illness. – That’s pretty much in line with what the mental health charities and their celebrities tell us.

Of these 300, 230 will go to see a GP. – 23% is still pretty close to the 1 in 4 number bandied around.

However, when it comes to numbers actually diagnosed with a mental health problem, and that term is pretty broadly defined even by doctors, only 102 get a diagnosis.  – That’s not 1 in 3, or even 1 in 4, it’s a smidgen over 1 in 10. The number of actual diagnoses of real mental health problems is a little three year old boy standing next to the Usain Bolt that are the numbers we are supposed to swallow unthinkingly.

When we get to serious mental health problems, that have to be referred to a specialist psychiatric service, it’s a mere 2.4% of the population. That’s not many people a with serious mental illness.

Now when it comes to the really bonkers people, a group I am not ashamed to count myself a member of, who become inpatients in psychiatric hospitals the number falls to 0.6% of the population. Wehay! I’m in the top 0.6% of the population! Erm… unless it’s the bottom… hmmm… Anyway, really very few people indeed have a very serious mental illness.

Just out of interest, The incidence of schizophrenia (which I included a sidebar of information about in case you want to know more) within the UK population is 0.5% and we paranoid schizophrenics make up around a quarter of them, ie. 0.125%. I feel lucky to be part of an elite!

So does it really matter that either mental health charities and their stooges genuinely cannot tell the difference between 25-33% and 10% of a population or that they are lying to us for reasons unknown? I think it does for two reasons.

Firstly, it makes people who suffer from minor mental anguish, say because their boss has been in a bad mood the past few days, worry that they have some serious problem. “If a third of people are mentally ill maybe I am too” is a really bad and wrong thought to be getting people to think.

Secondly, it makes the issue of mental illness sound so ubiquitous it trivialises it. I’ve had people say things to me like, “Oh no not another mentally ill person, there are so many people who say that.” and “Yeah, yeah, mentally ill, yeah, yeah, being a bit unhappy must be oh so terrible.” For the 10.2%/2.4%/0.6% who actually have a real mental illness it really is serious. The people who brush off my statement that I’m mentally ill, or think I’m a scrounging freeloader because I say I have paranoid schizophrenia, could not manage a day with the experiences I, and a lot of my friends, have – it’d kill them. (How do we manage? Experience, huge strength and medication, largely, but even with them sometimes I manage terrifyingly badly.)

The lesson of what I’ve just discovered is my hundred and first post, is that we should not take facts about serious issues that appear on billboards at face value. There are lots of organisations that have much to gain by scaring you into using their services, or gaining them influence and power, when really you have nothing to be scared of.

This is particularly true with health scares one is fed on a daily basis. If you really want to know your danger, say, of getting a pancreatic cancer if you drink one pint a day, don’t just believe the headline that it’ll triple your risk. Look up the actual data and make intelligent decisions basis. I once read a ‘quadrupling the lifetime risk of getting some cancer if you drank’-headline, so I looked up the paper the headline was based on and the baseline risk was less that a thousandth of a percent – that’s so low it doesn’t matter. These scientists managed to conjure up the figure that if you drank, this utterly insignificant figure supposedly went up to four times more than than less than a thousandth of a percent. That’s called marginal-value epidemiology and when I was an epidemiologist at Oxford we called that crap.

Rant over.

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  • This post may not be entirely suitable for this blog; I know a lot of littles and AB’s who are REALLY mentally ill and I was trying to enhance the perceived value of their experience rather than cheapen it.
    However, what really lead me to write this is the utter fury I feel at the science I loved and worked hard to further being constantly misused and abused to scare people and alter their behaviour for no good reason. The last example I gave was typical, newspapers and the arch neo-prohibitionist BBC are happy to scream that if we do something we are raising our risk of getting a disease. The are usually coy about mentioning exactly what disease because it’s usually vanishingly rare or easily treatable. Even the survival rate for things as scary as heart disease have rocketed in the past couple of decades. And when it’s a disease they dare to mention having it’s risk of lifetime incidence raised they don’t tell you the actual risk as it is usually such a tiny number it doesn’t mean anything and certainly couldn’t be measured with any believability.
    Marginal value epidemiology in public health is one of the scourges of modern life. They try to scare and coerce people to do things with no basis for doing so. So I promise you as an ex-incredibly skilled researcher in this field that, when you are grown up, having a glass of wine or a pint of beer every day will not reduce your lifespan BY A SINGLE DAY. Indeed more believable research suggests it’ll make you healthier and live longer – but we can talk about that when you’re over 18.