Is our mental health getting worse?

I have mild anxiety myself — nothing serious, nothing that’ll kill me. Many people, more than decades past, would also say that they have anxiety, or depression, or some form of mental health issue. This is wrongly interpreted by most as a signal of worsening mental health. In fact, it is a signal of better advice, reporting, and public knowledge about the subject.

If I were alive 100 years ago, my slight fears and apprehensions about particular situations would likely have been met with “advice” such as: ‘Man up!’, or ‘Get on with it!’. The idea of anxiety was a relative unknown, with likely only a few psychologists and government officials having any great understanding or awareness of it.

These few didn’t know what to do about it, and so, rather than take any particular action, they decided to gather more knowledge and allow society to continue on as before. People were aware only of issues such as psychosis (or madness, as it would’ve been referred to) and schizophrenia (also usually referred to as madness).

While there was a growing awareness of these grander and more profound mental health problems, the small imperfections were seen as just that — someone was ‘shy’ or ‘nervous’, not someone struggling with health.

As time went on, our scientific understanding of biochemical processes and our brains improved. The sphere of people who were aware of the growing number of smaller problems being identified was increasing all the while, and eventually, governments became more comfortable with speaking about these issues.

However, when it came to it, the way in which it was discussed was unhelpful, and a stigma grew around mental health problems. Men in particular felt that it was unfashionable and undesirable to have mental health conditions, and so refused to discuss their issues, dismissing them on grounds of insignificance.

There were high rates of mortality due to mental health, with small issues being allowed and unintentionally encouraged to develop into larger, life-threatening conditions.

Now, we face the complete opposite of the situation 20, 30, or 40 years ago. There are no more people now with mental health issues, proportional to the population, just more awareness of it.

The stigma around mental health has been destroyed, and tackling mental health and releasing more information about it is generally seen as noble. People who bravely speak out about their own experiences are lauded and supported by almost everyone, and it is a sense of public pride that we have such an open and accepting society.

Moreover, there are now thousands of helplines and charities, governmental and non-governmental, who provide all the aid they can to people suffering from mental health issues.

Because of the public appreciation and support for people who speak about their stories, those with mental health issues are less afraid to report their problems. We are now at a turning point, where it is widely accepted that reporting issues is a good thing, and there is very little stigma around mental health.

The issue we now face is not mental health itself, or the problems associated, but rather how to tackle it.

Ever-growing scientific understanding of the complexities and fine details of neuroscience and psychology has allowed better advice about how to confront and challenge issues, as well as medicating the most severe problems.

The combination of the better scientific understanding, less stigma, and better awareness means that the situation today is much better than that of decades past.

In schools, it is reported that students’ mental health is worsening due to social media and increasingly difficult examinations. It often seems as though the youth suffer disproportionately. This is also a non-truth.

While a large proportion of the youth have a diagnosis (1 in 10), these issues are almost invariably the smaller problems — anxiety, conduct disorder, and mild depression, for example. In the past, one may have heard horror stories about children with severe psychosis, but that is no longer a reality. Our ability to stop the progression of mental health problems is impressive.

In addition, many of the reports and diagnoses would never have happened 5, 10, or 15 years ago. The seemingly rising number of mental health patients is, in fact, a fallacy.

The final reason why the situation seems so bleak is the media. Let’s not attack them, however, but rather consider this:

News, by definition, is something that doesn’t fit the norms of the day. It is that which is unusual, unique, and remarkable. So when we see stories about particular cases or huge uptrends in the number of mental health diagnoses, we must bear in mind that these are being reported because of their unique nature, because they don’t fit the general trend.

That says everything that needs to be said about mental health: it is not worsening. Mental health treatment, advice, and the culture around it are improving, not worsening. The doom and gloom scenario portrayed by many is incredibly harmful to sufferers, who should be encouraged to reckon with their problems and seek help, not be told that they are just part of a growing statistic, fuelled by terrible care standards and a growing stigma.

Even if it were true, it would be unhelpful at best. We should continue in the direction we are going: destigmatising, better advice, and better awareness. With that will come true solutions, not just to adapt to mental health problems, but to prevent them in the first place. This progress and optimism should be front and centre in the conversation.

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