The Illusion of Mental Health
I came across a very interesting research paper a few days back. It talked about one of the most important and basic parts of modern psychology. It talked about the validity of psychometric tests which claim to measure the level of depression in an individual. The authors introduced the idea that just because a person scores low on tests of depressive symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are psychologically healthy. Let us take a deeper look into the interesting ideas introduced by them.
I have previously talked about how people tend to be dishonest when we ask them about how they are. You ask someone how they are, they say they’re fine and ask about you and you return the same answer back. It is a formality.
On similar lines, the authors suggest that many psychological tests like Beck’s Depression Inventory ask similar questions which wouldn’t get honest answers in most situations. It is not that you would answer honestly if someone asked you ‘how often do you feel like a failure in life?’
Something that happens often is that a role of social desirability comes into the play when people are answering these tests. They don’t want to be seen as ‘weirdos’ and hence tend to give the answers that a ‘normal’ person is expected to. Although the test administrator must share the importance of honest answering, it is not necessary that the person will always answer truthfully. It has also been found that these answers may be answered incorrectly even unconsciously.
This gives a sense of illusion of mental health among many people who take such self report inventories. People give the answers they are expected to and end up with low scores on depression scales. They are given the tag of ‘mentally healthy’ and allowed to be on their way. The unconscious mind manages to convince the world that everything inside it rosy and calm while it hides a storm within.
If the conclusions made by this study are accurate, it could shake the very foundations of psychometric assessment. Many studies that use these tests to draw conclusions could be put under a microscope because of the lack of validity in these tests. The study says that these studies end up measuring the degree of denial rather than the presence of depressive symptoms.
The authors speak cautiously about the consequences when stating these conclusions. They say that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the tests are completely invalid but that the scores that display a healthy tendency are ambiguous.
The authors proposed a solution by emphasizing the importance of the role of the clinical psychiatrist and other qualitative measures. They say that it is not necessary that a person who scores low on depression inventories cannot be termed mentally healthy without the confirmation by a clinical psychiatrist or a psychologist.
Psychology has also always given a lot of importance to objectivity in its pursuits of being more scientific but objectivity doesn’t always give us the whole picture. If psychology is to progress, it needs to find a perfect balance between objectivity and a place for clinical judgements and perspectives. The authors conclude with the following words,
“In our enthusiasm for measures that appear ‘objective’, we must be careful that we do not lose he ability to study what is psychologically important”
Shedler, J., Mayman, M., & Manis, M. (1993). The illusion of mental health. American Psychologist, 48(11), 1117.