For Better Or Worse, We’re A Nation Of Psychiatrist’s-Couch Potatoes

Within living memory, Americans went to great lengths to conceal their mental-health problems. In today’s therapeutic culture, it’s become the norm to acknowledge and seek help for such difficulties. A Harris Interactive survey of adults, conducted for PacifiCare Behavioral Health and Psychology Today, quantifies the phenomenon.

Based on criteria used by PacifiCare, 30 percent of respondents were classified as having needed mental-health treatment during the past two years; 27 percent received some form of treatment. (The latter number includes those who’ve “seen a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or marital and family counselor” or who’ve “taken a prescription medication for a personal, emotional or mental-health problem” during that period.) Of those who got treatment, 47 percent have used prescription drugs but haven’t undergone therapy; 19 percent have received therapy but not prescription medications; 34 percent have received both. Modern life being what it is, there’s a less than perfect match between those who need such help and those who get it. Eleven percent of adults needed treatment but didn’t get it; 8 percent didn’t need it but received treatment anyway.

The study gives a demographic breakdown of those who’ve received mental-health treatment in the past two years. This cohort is 63 percent female, 37 percent male. Thirty percent are age 18-34, 37 percent are 35-49, 24 percent are 50-64 and 9 percent are 65 or older. Roughly tracking their proportions in the general population, 54 percent are married, 20 percent single, 15 percent divorced/separated and 10 percent widowed or in some other category. Eighty percent are white and 20 percent are non-white.

Amid scads of anecdotal evidence that life has become more stressful, one might expect to see an increase in the incidence of mental-health problems. However, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives some reason to think that hasn’t occurred (yet). The percentage of adults saying they’ve experienced “serious psychological distress” in the 30 days before being queried has barely changed in annual surveys dating back to 1997—never exceeding 3.3 percent or falling below 2.4 percent. In an early release of the data for 2004 (covering January through September), women were more likely than men (3.7 percent vs. 2.4 percent) to say they’d suffered such distress in the previous 30 days. The incidence of such distress was also higher in the 45-64 age cohort (3.8 percent) than among the 18-44s (2.9 percent) or those 65 and older (2.2 percent).