Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

How common are common mental disorders? Evidence that lifetime prevalence rates are doubled by prospective versus retrospective ascertainment

T. E. Moffitta1a2 c1, A. Caspia1a2, A. Taylora3, J. Kokauaa4, B. J. Milnea2, G. Polanczyka1a2 and R. Poultona5

a1 Duke University, Durham, NC, USA

a2 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK

a3 UK Office of National Statistics, London, UK

a4 New Zealand Ministry of Health, New Zealand

a5 Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, University of Otago, New Zealand


Background Most information about the lifetime prevalence of mental disorders comes from retrospective surveys, but how much these surveys have undercounted due to recall failure is unknown. We compared results from a prospective study with those from retrospective studies.

Method The representative 1972–1973 Dunedin New Zealand birth cohort (n=1037) was followed to age 32 years with 96% retention, and compared to the national New Zealand Mental Health Survey (NZMHS) and two US National Comorbidity Surveys (NCS and NCS-R). Measures were research diagnoses of anxiety, depression, alcohol dependence and cannabis dependence from ages 18 to 32 years.

Results The prevalence of lifetime disorder to age 32 was approximately doubled in prospective as compared to retrospective data for all four disorder types. Moreover, across disorders, prospective measurement yielded a mean past-year-to-lifetime ratio of 38% whereas retrospective measurement yielded higher mean past-year-to-lifetime ratios of 57% (NZMHS, NCS-R) and 65% (NCS).

Conclusions Prospective longitudinal studies complement retrospective surveys by providing unique information about lifetime prevalence. The experience of at least one episode of DSM-defined disorder during a lifetime may be far more common in the population than previously thought. Research should ask what this means for etiological theory, construct validity of the DSM approach, public perception of stigma, estimates of the burden of disease and public health policy.

(Received April 14 2009)

(Revised June 30 2009)

(Accepted July 04 2009)

(Online publication September 01 2009)


c1 Address for correspondence: T. E. Moffitt, Suite 201 Grey House, 2020 West Main Street, Duke University Box 104410, Durham, NC 27708, USA. (Email: or