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How to Understand Mental Health Statistics in Utah

How to Understand Mental Health Statistics in Utah

In Utah, a lot of mental health statistics are misunderstood because the essential meaning of the information is lost in the game of telephone between research study, news reporting, and general audience. Even in the best of circumstances, for example, there is likely to be a sizable difference between the actual rate of depression, the number of people who choose to seek therapy, and a physician’s likelihood of prescribing antidepressant medications. Something as fundamental as what the study is studying and how the information is packaged can be easily misconstrued if you don’t know what to look for. Here are some things we suggest you keep in mind as you seek to educate yourself about mental health realities in Utah.


Prevalence, Incidence, and Base Rates

What’s the average rate of depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder? It depends what rate we’re talking about. The most commonly cited mental health statistics are prevalence rates: this is the percentage of people who experience a mental disorder within a given time frame (i.e. currently, over the last 12 months, over their lifetime). This is calculated by asking health providers how many individuals held a diagnosis within a given timeframe. The incidence rate is instead the number of new cases that occur. This is determined by counting the new cases initiated by mental health providers.

Finally, the base rate is the prevalence rate of a mental disorder in the population as a whole. This is done by randomly sampling the population and assessing each individual’s mental health status. Cost-prohibitive for most organizations, the best example of this type of research is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the definitive guide used by mental health professionals in the U.S. Thus, even when prevalence and incidence rate information is published by the Utah Health Department, clinicians in the state are still more likely to know or consult the national-level data.


Diagnostic Criteria

Even the way in which the base rates are calculated can change substantially over the years. This is not because the underlying rates of symptomology change in the individuals who are surveyed. Rather, scientists and researchers tend to change and refine the criteria for what counts as autism or addiction or depression.

For example, the most recent edition of the diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, included a new category—disruptive mood dysregulation—which a form of depression that occurs in childhood and adolescence and is characterized by persistent irritability and temper tantrums that go beyond what’s considered developmentally appropriate.

Moreover, there is also momentum to expand the depressive criteria in a way that would include more men. Rather than gender parity for its own sake, researchers claim to recognize a pattern of male-type depression characterized by “anger attacks, aggression, substance abuse and risk taking.” At the very least, this study is something to keep in mind the next time you read that women are about twice as likely as men to suffer from depression.


Mental Health Statistics and Media Reports

Research studies rarely describe these differences because it’s assumed that the academic, scientific, and health provider audiences already understand the terminology. Meanwhile, contemporary journalists are rarely given the attention, space, and freedom needed to accurately qualify the information contained in research studies.

And yet, differences between base rates and prevalence frequently have a bigger story to tell about the mental health services in that area. When the prevalence is significantly higher than the base rate, for example, this can be a sign that the condition is being over-diagnosed. Likewise, when the prevalence dips much lower than expected, this can be a sign the condition is under-diagnosed.

To this point, some Utah mental health statistics do have a compelling story to tell, if only we could read the script. In 2010, shortly before the CDC issued a report that said antidepressant use had skyrocketed 400% in the previous two decades, Utah was completing its own antidepressant use report. Not only had the state seen its own escalation of antidepressant use, but the highest use rates were concentrated in northern Utah, not Utah County as many believed. Meanwhile, the part of the story that remains inscrutable is whether this higher use rate reflected greater access to health services, physicians who were too quick to get out the prescription pad, or some combination of factors.


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