Over on Club Troppo, The Mental Health puzzle, part III: the cultural hypothesis continues Paul Frijter's examination of the puzzle of the measured increase in in mental health problems (depression, anxiety, and obesity in particular) across the Western world since the 1950s and in Anglo-Saxon countries in particular. In looking at this, Paul explicitly took it as a given that that this was a real increase and not just a measurement issue.
Now I have only just come across the series (I missed the earlier posts), so have nor properly absorbed Paul's arguments. However, the discussions links to some things that I have been thinking about that I just wanted to jot down.
The rise in measured diseases is not limited to mental health. My impression is that we are looking at a pattern that is broader than that. I suppose that the two that have most puzzled me are the apparent rise in asthma and in allergies of all sorts. If we take asthma as an example, I was in my early twenties before I met anyone with serious asthma. It wasn't talked about in a day to day sense. Now I see puffers everywhere and I have met multiple people suffering from what appears to be relatively severe asthma.
No doubt part of the answer lies in the increase in population. Where serious conditions are rare, the visible numbers and hence the commentary rise as the population rises. However, it would appear to be more than that. Here, and just looking at social things, I want to list three interacting things.
The first is the combination of reporting and measurement. Our capacity to collect data has risen sharply, as has the desire to report on different things. There is, I think, plenty of evidence to show that better reporting and data management systems leads to a rise in the number of recorded incidents and responses to those incidents.
The second is the professionalisation and especially the medicalisation within our community. All professionals look for problems that they can solve with their respective tool kits. They classify things in terms of their own taxonomies. You can see this in the mental health field, for example, where there has been a very large expansion in the things classified as "mental Illness" and therefore addressable via medical means. This is not helped by our own desire for answers.
The third can be classified as feed-back loops. As we become more aware of things, we apply them to ourselves. We seek help and advice on more things. This is reported. We become more aware. Its kind of a reverse placebo effect.
These three interacting things to my mind play a significant role in some of the trends that we see. If we really want to measure something like the of serious allergies, asthma or mental illness we have to be able to net these other trends out, and this can be hard.