If it is deemed sensationalist to characterize this situation as terrifying, one may add that a much larger share of the population — estimated at close to 50 percent in the NIMH study — is affected by less severe forms of mental disease that only occasionally disturb their functionality.
Comparative epidemiologists have repeatedly noticed something remarkable about these illnesses: Only Western countries (or, more precisely, societies with monotheistic traditions — particularly prosperous Western countries) are subject to prevalence rates of this magnitude.
Southeast Asian countries appear to be especially immune to the bane of severe mental illness and in other regions, poverty, or lack of development, seems to offer a protective barrier.
As I argue in my recent book Mind, Modernity, Madness, the reason for high concentrations of severe mental illness in the developed West lies in the very nature of Western societies. The “virus” of depression and schizophrenia, including their milder forms, is cultural in origin: The embarrassment of choices that these societies offer in terms of self-definition and personal identity leaves many of their members disoriented and adrift.
The US offers the widest scope for personal self-definition and it also leads the world in judgement-impairing disease. Unless the growing prevalence of serious psychopathology is taken seriously and addressed effectively, it is likely to become the only indicator of US leadership. The rise of China is unrelated to this.
Liah Greenfeld is a professor of sociology, political science and anthropology at Boston University, and distinguished adjunct professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences