Are Mental Health Issues Increasing?

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According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health conditions are increasing worldwide. In recent times the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the increased use of social media have been implicated. Contrarily some think increasing mental health problems are a myth. Especially before the appearance of COVID-19 patchy data and increased self-reporting was deemed responsible for a mythical epidemic in mental health that was, in any case, difficult to assess.

Mental Health

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This article looks at some of the statistics and finds mental health problems do appear to be rising and the substantial investment currently being recommended to avert a looming crisis.

Mental health: An increasing cause for concern?

There are many kinds of mental illness from common conditions such as anxiety and depression which affect millions worldwide, to the less common disorders such as Capgras syndrome ––most observed in those with dementia or schizophrenia, this syndrome causes the irrational belief in the sufferer that someone they know has been replaced by an imposter.

It is thought that around 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health condition each year in England. Numbers have been increasing in recent years. For example, the number of people with a common mental health condition rose by 20% between the years 1993 to 2014.

Suicide and self-harm are also on the rise ––although a dramatic increase since 2018 for UK statistics is partly attributable to changes in the way deaths are reported meaning more deaths are now officially recorded as suicides compared to in the past.

Having a diagnosable mental health condition can impact all areas of life ­––school, work, personal relationships, and the ability to participate in the community. A person’s diagnosis may also change several times throughout their life.

What are the most common mental illnesses?

Amongst the most common mental health conditions are:

  • Clinical depression ––a more severe form of depression where the sufferer can feel persistently sad for weeks or months. Other symptoms include loss of joy, feeling unhappy or hopeless, low self-esteem, loss of appetite, and problems sleeping
  • Depressive disorders ––affect millions of people globally each year
  • Anxiety ––intense, persistent worries and fears, avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations. In acute cases can lead to phobias and panic attacks
  • Bipolar disorder ––extreme mood disturbance. The disorder consists of two types; Bipolar I which involves episodes of mania and depression and Bipolar II where the sufferer has more frequent periods of depression with fewer, lower key, manic episodes
  • Schizophrenia ––a severe long-term condition often characterized as a type of psychosis. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, muddled thoughts, lack of care over personal hygiene, avoiding others
  • Substance abuse ––affects millions worldwide ––it becomes a disorder when users of intoxicating substances struggle with control, compulsion, and withdrawal
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder ––caused by a past stressful event that is then re-lived, sometimes years after it occurred. Symptoms include depression, loss of concentration, mood, temper, sleep, energy, and control
  • Dementia ––decline in brain function and impairments in thinking, remembering, and reasoning

Who do mental health conditions affect the most?

Mental health conditions are indiscriminate and can affect anyone. A good way to think of mental illness is to think of a spectrum ––we all sit somewhere along the continuum. Some groups are more likely to be affected than are others. According to the charity Mind based on statistics for people living in England, the most affected groups are:

  • People who identify as LGBTIQ ––are 2 to 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition
  • Black or Black British people ––23% will experience a mental health difficulty over the course of a week compared to 17% of white British people
  • Women aged 16-24 ––26% in any given week
  • Those with overlapping problems such as a substance use disorder, homelessness, and contact with the criminal justice system ––around 40%

The risk factors for causation of mental health difficulties include:

  • Inequality and social disadvantage
  • Discrimination and social exclusion
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Differences in physical health

Also, according to WHO around 20% of children and adolescents have a mental health condition. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15–29-year-old demographic (WHO). Alarmingly research indicates an increase in internalizing symptoms in girls ––internalizing symptoms have a basis in emotions linked to distress such as fear and sadness which may exacerbate depression, loneliness, anxiety, and somatic complaints (e.g., headaches and stomach-aches).

The costs of mental health

The WHO has reported that substantial investment is urgently required to ensure:

  • Increased mental health awareness ––more understanding and less stigma
  • Access to quality mental health care and treatments
  • Research to improve existing treatments and to identify new ones

Amongst the most common mental health conditions are depression and anxiety. The cost to the global economy for depression and anxiety alone amounts to US$ 1 trillion each year and yet the government spending on mental health amounts to only less than 2% (WHO).

Although mental health conditions are on the rise it's wrong to think of this as an epidemic. As Rice-Oxley (2019) put it, “It’s not a disease of Western capitalism.” But having noted this it is nevertheless possible to treat many mental health conditions at a relatively low cost. There is a substantial gap between those who require care and those with ready access.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Dr. Nicola Williams

Written by

Dr. Nicola Williams

Versatile science writer and content specialist (who can offer a unique historical twist too). I broadly focus on biology (including medicine), physics, and technology. I’m passionate about communicating the latest scientific research in an exciting, fresh, and accessible way. As a trained historian, I am also uniquely able to write content with a historical focus. I write about scientific news and research in a variety of formats, including articles, blogs, and scripts.


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