The Checkered History of American Psychiatric Epidemiology


Allan V. Horwitz, Gerry Grob, Institute for Health, 112 Paterson St., Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 (email:;


Context: American psychiatry has been fascinated with statistics ever since the specialty was created in the early nineteenth century. Initially, psychiatrists hoped that statistics would reveal the benefits of institutional care. Nevertheless, their fascination with statistics was far removed from the growing importance of epidemiology generally. The impetus to create an epidemiology of mental disorders came from the emerging social sciences, whose members were concerned with developing a scientific understanding of individual and social behavior and applying it to a series of pressing social problems. Beginning in the 1920s, the interest of psychiatric epidemiologists shifted to the ways that social environments contributed to the development of mental disorders. This emphasis dramatically changed after 1980 when the policy focus of psychiatric epidemiology became the early identification and prevention of mental illness in individuals.

Methods: This article reviews the major developments in psychiatric epidemiology over the past century and a half.

Findings: The lack of an adequate classification system for mental illness has precluded the field of psychiatric epidemiology from providing causal understandings that could contribute to more adequate policies to remediate psychiatric disorders. Because of this gap, the policy influence of psychiatric epidemiology has stemmed more from institutional and ideological concerns than from knowledge about the causes of mental disorders.

Conclusion: Most of the problems that have bedeviled psychiatric epidemiology since its inception remain unresolved. In particular, until epidemiologists develop adequate methods to measure mental illnesses in community populations, the policy contributions of this field will not be fully realized.