An Introduction to Psychiatric Epidemiology

Editor’s Note: This article uses the term “mental disorder” to describe characteristic groups of mental or behavioral symptoms that can be classified as such by a medical professional. Individuals with mental disorders are often stigmatized and stereotyped; these are harmful misconceptions that this article seeks to discredit.

By Annalise Lane

When you think of mental health, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of self-care practices, such as going for a daily walk, or reading your favorite book before bed. Maybe you consider how happy or sad or stressed you feel on a day-to-day basis. Maybe you think of therapy, counseling services, or medications that are available to treat mental health conditions—including those that you or loved ones may have accessed. According to the World Health Organization, having good mental health is often defined as a state of feeling good, accompanied by the ability to successfully manage stressors of daily life. Mental health is all of these things, and everyone has a unique experience when it comes to what mental health means to them.

However your experiences with mental health look, it is likely that you know of or have heard about the important role that mental health plays in overall health and well-being. For example, research shows a correlation between having good mental health and outcomes such as a high quality of life and lower risk of cardiovascular disease. On the contrary, mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression have been linked to problems in maintaining relationships, excessive fatigue, and even an increased risk for physical health problems such as diabetes and heart disease. For these reasons, it is important to prioritize our mental health and recognize when accessing mental health care or resources is beneficial. It is so important, in fact, that multiple fields of research are dedicated to studying mental disorders.

Perhaps you’ve heard of psychiatry, a specific branch of medicine that focuses on disorders that are mental, emotional, and/or behavioral in nature. The field of psychology, on the other hand, refers to a scientific area of study that focuses on the human mind and behavior. In addition to these areas of study, there is also an entire field dedicated to studying trends in the occurrence of mental disorders. This field is called psychiatric epidemiology. In this context, psychiatric means “relating to mental illness or its treatment,” while epidemiology refers to “the scientific study of diseases and how they are found, spread, and controlled in groups of people.” Simply stated, psychiatric epidemiologists are interested in understanding how mental disorders are distributed across populations, how these distributions change over time and across geographical regions, and the reasons behind these distributions; psychiatric epidemiologists use this information to develop or improve upon existing efforts to treat and prevent mental disorders.

Psychiatric epidemiology is different from the fields of psychiatry and psychology in a few important ways. First, psychiatric epidemiologists are often researchers and/or professors who collect and analyze data about mental disorders and their occurrence. Unlike psychiatrists and psychologists, psychiatric epidemiologists do not treat mental health conditions—they only study them. While psychiatrists and psychologists often work in patient care settings, such as hospitals or outpatient clinics, psychiatric epidemiologists often work in academic institutions, such as universities, or for government or private research organizations. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health is a branch of the National Institute of Health that conducts research on mental disorders. Additionally, the work of the psychiatric epidemiologist often falls under the branch of public health. That is, while psychiatrists and psychologists focus on mental disorders at the individual level, psychiatric epidemiologists study mental disorders across larger groups of people.

You may be wondering, why is psychiatric epidemiology important, and how does it apply to me? These are excellent questions. Studies that examine trends and patterns in mental disorders across populations and regions and over time allow researchers to understand what types of treatment or prevention efforts could be implemented in certain settings like schools or community mental health centers. These researchers can then publish papers that summarize the findings of these studies so that influential leaders and organizations understand where mental health resources and funding should be allocated. Psychiatric epidemiology can also inform the creation of policies and programs that support mental health on a local, state, or national scale. For example, policies such as the Americans with Disabilities Act safeguard workplace accommodations for individuals with mental health conditions.

If you or someone you know has experienced a mental health condition at some point in their life, it is likely that the condition or treatment has been studied by psychiatric epidemiologists. Even daily feelings of stress and anxiety are of interest to psychiatric epidemiologists, who wish to understand mental disorders to improve mental health outcomes on a large scale. 

Annalise is a second year Master of Public Health in Epidemiology student at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, where her primary concentration is psychiatric epidemiology. In her free time, Annalise enjoys listening to music, running, and spending time with friends and family.

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