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

  • T. E. Moffitt (a1) (a2), A. Caspi (a1) (a2), A. Taylor (a3), J. Kokaua (a4), B. J. Milne (a2), G. Polanczyk (a1) (a2) and R. Poulton (a5)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 September 2009

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.


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.


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).


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.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: T. E. Moffitt, Suite 201 Grey House, 2020 West Main Street, Duke UniversityBox 104410, Durham, NC 27708, USA. (Email: or
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