EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 14, 2013

Statistics skewed concerning mental illness among young people

Family Matters
Dr. Larry Larsen

---- — Dear Doctor,

There seems to be an increase in many mental illnesses in children.

As parents we want to avoid the things that are causing them.

What can we do to help our kids not have so many of these awful problems?


Dear Reader,

Take a very deep breath and calm down.

Your information is definitely out there, but let me give you a quick lesson in statistics. When you read “doctors agree” (seldom true, by the way) and other references to “alarming increase,” return to common sense.

Statistics lie, not because of the math, but due to the research design. Let me give you two examples:

Suppose you investigated a club with only 10 members. The first nine work for the street department. Their income is around $50,000 a year. On investigation you discover the average income of the club members is about 200 million. What happened?

You failed to add the income of the 10th member, who happens to be Warren Buffet. He likes hanging out with these dudes, but the income information is knocked for a loop.

This is an example of a classic error in math, often seen in scientific research.

The second error is one of sample. Where did the data come from? Most marketing research, for example, comes from people who stayed on the phone for the interview. Others hang up. The fact that they hung up is critical. What is the nature of that sample?

Political polls are very vulnerable to such errors. So is medical research. Complex variables abound. There are many drugs on the market whose effectiveness is only slightly above what a placebo will accomplish.

In my opinion, youngsters today suffer from no more mental maladies than any other generation. They are over-diagnosed.

Stay tuned for next week’s column for my opinion about what you can do to be effective as a parent.