Feeling anxious, depressed, powerless? Well, you’re not alone. A growing number of people all over the world are dealing with mental health problems. In fact, since 1990 mental disorders have increased globally by 48%. Besides the direct health and social impact, it has on individuals, this increase in mental health disorders costs the global economy almost $1 trillion each year. This means that mental health can no longer be treated as an individual problem but rather as a widespread public issue.
Why Has There Been a Rise in Mental Health Issues?
Before we answer that we need to first understand what causes mental disorders. Mental health is incredibly complex and there are many variations in combinations of factors that can lead to mental disorders. These range from biological factors to external social and environmental factors.
Biological factors include genetics, chemical imbalances, and physical injuries; for example, studies have shown that bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia have genetic roots which can get passed down in the family. More external are direct psychological factors tied to individuals’ individual experiences. Cognitive and affective traits like coping skills, self-esteem, memory, or trauma.
Poor self-esteem, for example, was how to play a critical role in the development of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Even further out are social and environmental factors. Discrimination, poverty, pollution, displacement, food insecurity et al can all have detrimental mental health impacts on a large scale.
A study showed that if people are exposed to prolonged armed conflicts, where they experience constant stress and trauma, they are more vulnerable to developing a mental disorder. Some of these external factors can also interact with certain internal factors and put people at higher risk of developing a mental disorder. Internal factors like sex, gender, or race can interact with social factors like discrimination and poverty to increase the risk of developing mental problems.
Now that we know what causes mental health problems, which of these factors is behind the recent increase in mental disorders in the last 30 years? Since biological factors like genetics or physical injury have remained relatively constant, they can be ruled out. But as we move towards the more external social and environmental factors, we can see that there has been a lot of change in the past few decades. Researchers believe that these external social changes have played a significant role in the increase in mental health disorders today.
Over the years the gap between the average incomes of the top 10% and the bottom 50% of individuals within countries has almost doubled. This unequal distribution of income means that despite overall economic growth, many people still face financial problems. Research shows that this economic distress can adversely affect people’s mental health as it may promote fear, worry, and hopelessness to exert control over their situation.
A study conducted with low-income families in the US showed that persistent poverty-related stress was related to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The 2021 IPCC report warns us that global warming and extreme weather events like heat waves and floods will become more frequent and intense. Direct contact with these extreme weather events can severely disrupt people’s lives and lead to trauma, loss of resources, and social support. Research reveals that this can increase the risk of developing mental disorders such as PTSD, depression, general anxiety, increased substance use, and suicidal thoughts.
Changing Social Structure
Humans have evolved as social creatures, strongly dependent on familial and social bonds. However today many people live alone, far away from their communities. A significant reason for this has been better job opportunities, quality education, and advanced healthcare offered in cities. Due to these incentives, the urban population increased from 39% in 1980 to 55% today.
However, cities are expensive and have limited space. This often results in many people moving to cities alone, leaving their families and social support networks behind. Researchers found that people living in isolation in urban areas are more likely to suffer from certain mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, alienation, and family disintegration.
Today almost 1 in 3 people around the world use social media platforms. This technology has a direct link to people’s lives and their social connections and interactions. Many researchers have highlighted that social media is heavily linked to negative well-being and poor self-esteem, especially among young people. A study found that people who use 7 or more social media platforms were three times more likely to have higher anxiety symptoms than those who use zero to two platforms. Spending more time on social media can make people experience social isolation
While a lot of this research is new and ongoing it is clear that the rise of social media is increasing the risk of mental health disorders. As we have seen, these large-scale social and environmental changes are creating mental health challenges. So, it’s very plausible that the recent increase in global mental health problems is correlated to these large-scale social and environmental changes. If that is the case solution to this public health crisis in addition to conventional treatment and prevention measures needs to address these social and environmental challenges as well.