Being Moody Isn’t a Mental Illness

April 20, 2018

We need to stop pathologizing normal life and calling negative emotions illnesses.

It is difficult to open up a magazine or newspaper today without seeing a headline trumpeting the existence of a “mental health crisis”—particularly on our college and university campuses.

Indeed, if the media coverage is to be believed, we are drowning in a sea of mental illness that threatens to overwhelm postsecondary institutions.

The call then is for more pills, more therapy, more of everything, including more panic. Perhaps it’s time for more sober analysis.

The prevalence of mental illnesses (defined using clear diagnostic criteria) is not rising in this cohort.

Youth self-reports of negative emotions are increasing. But the self-report scales used in studies documenting this have not been calibrated for generational changes in language use. Nor have the results been validated using clear, clinically valid diagnostic criteria applied by expert clinicians.

Some of the surveys that have contributed to this panic also collapse different questions into meaningless categories (for example, collapsing “all the time” and “often” into one category).

The above-noted self-reports do identify the ups and downs of everyday emotions, but these are not criteria for a diagnosis of mental illness. So we can say that youth on campus may report feeling more negative emotions than previously, but this is not the same thing as saying that young people have more mental disorders than previously.

Throwing Gasoline on the Fire

Instead of applying critical thinking to these self-reports, many health and media professionals have rushed to throw gasoline on the fire.

Here’s an example. In late 2017, the study “Mental Ill-health Among Children of the New Century: Trends Across Childhood With the Focus on Age 14” was published by the National Children’s Bureau in the United Kingdom.

This showed that self-reported negative emotions were present in about one-quarter of this surveyed group, but this was interpreted as saying that 25 percent of 14-year-old girls in the UK suffer from depression.

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