U.S. Mental Illness Epidemic


y 2003 in the U.S., 1 in 50 had been classified
as disabled mentally ill, an increase from the 1987 rate of 1 in
75 (based on Social Security Administration payments for the mentally
ill). This was reported in the journal

Ethical Human Psychology
and Psychiatry

in 2005 by science writer Robert Whitaker who
also noted that 1 in 300 were considered disabled mentally ill in
1955, an increase from 1 in 500 in 1903 (1955 and 1903 statistics
based on U.S. mental illness hospitalizations). 

In 1998 Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological
Association, spoke to the National Press Club about an epidemic
of depression in the U.S.: “There is now between 10 and 20
times as much of it as there was 50 years ago.” In 1999 the
World Health Organization ranked depression as the world’s
fourth most devastating illness, projecting that it would climb
to second place by 2020. The WHO reported in 2001 that there was
a higher prevalence of depression in the U.S. and other high-income
nations compared to less wealthy ones. 

Mexican immigrants who have accommodated to U.S. society have twice
the rate of mental disorders as newly arrived Mexican immigrants,
according to a 1998 study by public health researcher William Vega.
Vega discovered that the rate of mental disorders steadily grew
after immigration, so that Mexican immigrants who had been in the
U.S. for more than 13 years had nearly the same rate of mental disorders
as native-born Americans. 

By 2004 the U.S. annual combined sales of antidepressants (such
as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil) and antipsychotics (such as Zyprexa,
Risperdal, and Haldol) had reached $20 billion, a 40-fold increase
from $500 million in 1985. In 2006 the

Journal of Ambulatory

reported that the rate of children prescribed antipsychotics
increased from 8.6 per 1,000 children in 1995-1996 to 39.4 per 1,000
by 2001-2002. 

Psychiatric drug commercials tell us the culprit for mental illness
is our faulty neurotransmitters; however, our innate biochemistry
is one of the few things that has not recently changed, so why such
a dramatic increase in the rate of mental illness? What has significantly
changed is society and that’s where it makes sense to search
for the culprits. The following are some of the likely sources for
the epidemic. 

of Community:

Sociologist Robert Putnam’s

Bowling Alone

makes it clear that U.S. society in the last century has been ravaged
in terms of social capital, his term for social connectedness. Americans
spend decreasing time with family, friends, and neighbors and have
fewer significant human relationships. Putnam reports that, “Low
levels of social support directly predict depression…. Countless
studies document the link between society and psyche: people who
have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive
coworkers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low
self-esteem, and problems with eating or sleeping.” 

Loss of Meaningfulness and Autonomy:

Andrew Kimbrell, director
of the International Center for Technology Assessment, reported
in 1999, “Studies consistently show as many as 80 percent of
workers in our society feel their jobs are meaningless.” The
leading growth jobs in the U.S. now include cashiers, janitors,
maids, retail clerks, and restaurant servers.  At the end of
the 19th century, a majority of Americans still worked for themselves—mostly
family farmers—but by the end of the 20th century the overwhelming
majority were working for someone else; and most of those still
classified as self-employed are in fact at the mercy of corporations
and governmental bureaucracies.  

Not too long ago, Americans had far more physically demanding and
difficult lives, but these lives included antidotes to mental disability.
In addition to genuine community, family farmers and artisans had
work with greater autonomy, creativity, and meaning. 

Psychiatric Drug Explosion:

Psychiatric drugs given for non-psychotic
behaviors can trigger psychotic behaviors. The attention deficit
disorder drugs Adderall (an amphetamine) and Ritalin (amphetamine-like)
affect the same neurotransmitters as cocaine and can cause mania,
hallucinations, and delusions. Antidepressant and antipsychotic
drugs that are often prescribed for acute symptoms can result in
chronic disabling disorders because of the body’s adaptation
to these drugs, e.g., serotonin-enhancing drugs such as Prozac cause
the body’s neurons to release less serotonin as well as to
decrease the number of serotonin receptors, resulting in an ever-increasing
need for more of the drug, without which withdrawal, sometimes with
psychotic symptoms, can ensue. 

Extreme Consumerism:

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm believed that
the increasing rate of severe emotional problems in modern society
was connected to increasing consumerism. Fromm saw Americans as
dominated by the having mode— greed, acquisition, possession,
aggressiveness, control, deception, and alienation from self, others,
and the natural world, resulting in increasing mental illness. Unlike
modern mental health professionals who take seriously drug studies
that are funded by drug companies, Fromm took seriously Buddha,
Jesus, and Spinoza. 

According to Spinoza—not only a great philosopher, but a psychologist
(he discovered the power of unconscious passions more than 200 years
before Freud)—“If the greedy person thinks only of money
and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think
of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has
contempt for them. But factually, greediness, ambition, and so forth
are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them
as ‘illness.’” 

If we take Spinoza seriously and then consider how many Americans
take Donald Trump seriously, we may well conclude that perhaps there
is a pandemic of mental illness in the U.S. If we take the research
and common sense seriously, we will likely conclude that the cause
of increasing rates of depression, psychoses, greed, and other self-destructive
behaviors is an ill society that is increasingly difficult to transcend.


E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of

Rebellion: Taking Back Your Life from Drugs, Shrinks, Corporations,
and a World Gone Crazy