Sep 062011
Authors: Colleen McSweeney

Everyone has that one regret from their childhood –– that one bit of anguished nostalgia you’ll inevitably tell your therapist about while curled up, crying on their polyester couch.

For me, it was never being able to catch the ice cream truck.

I grew up in the small town of Palmer Lake, Colo., and the ice cream man’s arrival was always elusive and unpredictable. He probably only drove through town about once a year, but each time, I’d barely hear the faint lilt of the truck’s iconic melody before it drove off, leaving my innocence (and desire for a Ninja Turtles popsicle) crushed in the tire tracks.

It may seem overly dramatic, and well, it is. But as a kid, the ice cream truck was magical. A man who’s probably on work release, driving a rickety truck, selling overpriced Rocket Pops? I guess it’s one of those things that’s great until you think about it too much –– like sausage.

I was reminded of the touchy “ice-cream-truck-inadequacy” (as my future therapist will call it) after I saw the headline “Nearly 40 percent of Europeans suffer from mental illness” plastered on various news websites this week.

Really? Even with all the gelato over there?

Before even reading further into the story, I doubted its legitimacy. Sure, Europeans can carry the stereotype of “brooding,” but what about the other things they’re known for? Americans’ fast-paced lifestyle is constantly being weighed against the relaxed, two-hour-lunch type of day in Europe. It’s been a popular generality that Americans are stressed, and Europeans are wine-sipping lovers.

So I read further, and according to the unnamed “large new study”: in Europe, “38 percent of the population suffers each year from a brain disorder such as depression, anxiety, insomnia or dementia.”

Immediately, I wondered how these statistics compared to those in the U.S. While we’re constantly told that more than two-thirds of us are overweight, we’re rarely riddled with statistics about our mental health.

Sure, we know we’re fat, but are there some loose screws up there, too? I think we all know the answer…

But the same “large new study” that cited the European percentage said that no comparisons could be made to mental illness rates in other parts of the world, such as the U.S., because “different studies use varying parameters to gauge mental illness.”

Everything about it sounded ambiguous, and I was reminded of the paraphrased Mark Twain quote: “There are lies, there are damned lies and then there are statistics.”

That’s not to say I think the study’s statistics were completely fabricated, because I’m sure there is some legitimacy behind them. And in no way am I taking the Scientology, crazy Tom Cruise approach, claiming like him, “There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in a body.”
Oprah’s couch would beg to differ, Tom…

Any type of mental illness is nothing to joke about, but I think spouting statistics from unnamed studies does nothing except spread negative perception of an entire continent of people. The ubiquity of the headline gave me one impression: Americans are bitter about being called fat; so we’re glorifying the supposed vast mental instability of Europeans.

If the same study, by the same group, were conducted in the U.S., I think it’s safe to say our percentage of “mentally ill” would be in the same league as Europe.

I mean, if I were my five-year-old self, I’d see it as this: Americans are the chubby kid in the neighborhood, the kid who somehow knew exactly what time the ice cream truck was coming and waited on the corner with his mom’s 20-dollar-bill. And I’d see Europeans as the kid whose parents locked him in his room while the ice cream truck drove by –– but made sure to leave the window open so he could be taunted by the music.

Unfortunately, the human condition isn’t that simple. As easy as it would be to place us all into ice cream truck metaphors, our minds are far more complex. Statistics can’t always classify what a nation of people is truly experiencing.

I think most problems, like mental illness, can only truly be understood on a person-to-person basis, without the broad generalizations that accompany percentages.

But for the sake of my hypothetical future therapist, I’m still not giving up on that Ninja Turtles popsicle.

Editorial Editor Colleen McSweeney is a junior journalism major. Her column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. She can be reached at

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