The British Media’s Favorite Diagnoses

By Neuroskeptic | January 8, 2009 10:00 pm

I was bored again last night, so time for some more graphs.
This shows the total number of LexisNexis UK News Search hits in the “UK Broadsheets” category from 1st January of each year to 1st January of the next year, for four terms. A hit represents a broadsheet newspaper article containing the specified string(s). (This article might not be “about” that condition e.g., a report about a crime committed by someone with schizophrenia which be a hit for “schizophrenia”.)This is the same data for schizophrenia, bipolar/manic depression and autism/Asperger’s, but shown as the ratio of hits compared to the number of hits for “Epilepsy” in the same year. I did this because hits for all conditions increase over time, which probably represents the fact that newspapers are getting longer & maybe that they’re getting more interested in health (speculation.) Assuming that coverage of epilepsy is relatively immune to “fashion”, which seems plausible, this allows trends in the “popularity” of the other three conditions to be seen more clearly.

What’s the story? Firstly, the popularity of schizophrenia has remained fairly stable relative to epilepsy since 1985; this is what you’d expect, since rates of schizophrenia haven’t changed much over that time. I was a little surprised that the recent cannabis-causes-schizophrenia theme, which some British papers have been pushing quite hard, hasn’t had much effect. Hmm.

Bipolar disorder has become much more popular since about 2000; it’s now close to being as popular as schizophrenia. Given that the true rates of these two disorders have probably not changed for 30 years, this points to some kind of cultural, as opposed to medical, trend; bipolar is almost certainly more diagnosed and less stigmatized today than in the past – indeed in some circles it’s more trendy than just plain depression. (Note that “bipolar” will also give hits for articles using it in the political sense (“bipolar world”), but this is pretty uncommon.)

As for autism, coverage spiked in 2001-2002, the height of the British MMR-causes-autism scare. So no surprise there, but what did surprise me is that the popularity of autism has continued to increase since, with no sign of having peaked yet. Despite the fact that even the most stubborn armchair developmental neurologists have now largely stopped using the British newspapers to argue that vaccines cause autism, autism still gets more mentions than ever before.

So British newspaper readers can expect to hear plenty more about autism in 2009. Just remember that if you want in-depth discussions of this topic you might be better off reading LeftbrainRightbrain. That the newspapers are devoting increasing space to serious illnesses such as autism and bipolar disorder is in many ways a good thing, but quantity isn’t quality, as MMR and the media’s deeply uncritical coverage of the Kirsch et. al. (2008) antidepressant meta-analysis showed (more on that soon…)

Feel free to draw more conclusions from these coloured lines, as the mood takes you.

P.S I would have liked to do “depression”, but that word has many meanings, e.g. in economics. “Clinical depression”, on the other hand, seems to me increasingly old-fashioned; people just call it depression. Any ideas as to the best thing to search for?


CATEGORIZED UNDER: autism, graphs, history, media, mental health
  • Martin

    Really awesome article – I wasn't aware of this “media mentions” resource before, and I can see I'll be using it myself now. I actually had to write a web crawler to get similar results from U.S. papers during my Ph.D.!One point I feel I should mention. You mentioned that “hits for all conditions increase over time, which probably represents the fact that newspapers are getting longer & maybe that they're getting more interested in health (speculation.)” When I looked at U.S. papers, I found that the number of articles for many of them had stayed constant for decades, in spite of superficial changes in size/appearance. In that search I got my benchmark by looking for a common, neutral term – in my case “the”, and plotting that over time. It might be worth racking your brains to come up with a similar term (I'm guessing they filter out trivial words in this system) to normalize your results against.

  • Neuroskeptic

    It’s great – only problems are a) It’s not free (luckily I have an academic subscription via my institution)and b) It maxes out at 3000 hits, but you can always reduce the time-frame to get around that.Using “the” as a baseline is a good idea; I didn’t think of that. I think epilepsy works, though, because if hits for epilepsy are increasing it probably points to some increase in the use of neurological/medical words in general – which you need to correct for.

  • The Science Police

    Hi again.You may be sick of this (in the US, information saturation has not yet occurred). But please find a post (and a poll), we’d be interested to hear your take on. Science Police

  • Anonymous

    hi exelent blog



No brain. No gain.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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