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Using life history calendars to improve measurement of lifetime experience with mental disorders

  • William G. Axinn (a1), Stephanie Chardoul (a1), Heather Gatny (a1), Dirgha J. Ghimire (a1), Jordan W. Smoller (a2) (a3), Yang Zhang (a1) and Kate M. Scott (a4)...



Retrospective reports of lifetime experience with mental disorders greatly underestimate the actual experiences of disorder because recall error biases reporting of earlier life symptoms downward. This fundamental obstacle to accurate reporting has many adverse consequences for the study and treatment of mental disorders. Better tools for accurate retrospective reporting of mental disorder symptoms have the potential for broad scientific benefits.


We designed a life history calendar (LHC) to support this task, and randomized more than 1000 individuals to each arm of a retrospective diagnostic interview with and without the LHC. We also conducted a careful validation with the Structured Clinical Interview for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition.


Results demonstrate that—just as with frequent measurement longitudinal studies—use of an LHC in retrospective measurement can more than double reports of lifetime experience of some mental disorders.


The LHC significantly improves retrospective reporting of mental disorders. This tool is practical for application in both large cross-sectional surveys of the general population and clinical intake of new patients.


Corresponding author

Author for correspondence: William G. Axinn, E-mail:


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Axinn et al. supplementary material
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