Mental distress is a global problem. According to the World Health Organization, today, 450 million people worldwide are living with mental illness. One in four people will experience a mental or neurological disorder during their lives. The Gallup 2018 global Emotions Report indicates that the levels of negative feelings people have, such as stress, anger or physical pain, have increased over the past five years. Although not all findings suggest a global rise in mental disorders, there are indications that younger generations are experiencing an increase: especially in the U.S., levels of depression have increased sharply for young individuals. Among mental disorders, depression is the leading cause of disability around the world and it represents the fourth leading cause of the global disease burden. And the WHO predicts that it will rank second by 2020.

One possible driver of this apparent increase in mental distress might be that the concept of mental health is changing due to increasing awareness of mental health issues and more attention to modern influences on our mental fitness. Modern societies are undergoing transitions that cause mental distress and might further exacerbate mental health issues. The mental effects of three transitions in particular have become more visible in Western societies over the last years.

First is the social structure of societies that have rapidly changed over the last decades. Earlier, we wrote about modern loneliness, of an increasingly disconnected society in the digitally connected era. Currently, many speak of a loneliness epidemic in the Western world, such as in the U.S. The issue is being taken seriously, to the point of appointing a minister for loneliness, as in the U.K., since studies indicate that loneliness can lead to psychological disorders and that it increases mortality risk.

Second, societies have to deal with rapid demographic changes. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in the Western world stem from a considerable change in demographics. One example of this is the growing fear of white majorities in the U.S. of becoming the minority. The perceived threat of demographic change is making mostly white voters fearful, giving power to nationalism and politicians responding to that fear. Tensions in Europe are also rising, as transformative demographic changes have threatened the majority. The latest refugee crisis has further intensified the fear and uncertainty of the majority of the population that they will become minorities. This is especially true for Eastern European countries that are facing a depopulation crisis. It is a fear of existence that leads to psychological stress.

A third strain on mental stability consists of the increasingly experienced effects of climate change. According to climate change psychology experts, the dire projections of climate change and experiences of extreme weather events, floods, wildfires and droughts lead us to feel anxious and uncertain. Furthermore, new research shows how air pollution has an emotional cost. A study published in Nature found that higher levels of air pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.

Although these transitions contribute to mental health issues, adequate treatment is missing in developed and developing countries. More than 40% of countries have no mental health policy and over 30% have no mental health program. Furthermore, the WHO warns of the mental health gap in developing countries. For instance, in most African countries, less than 1% of health budgets is spent on mental health care. Those living in poverty are more likely to be constantly exposed to severely stressful events, dangerous living conditions, exploitation, and poor health, contributing to their greater vulnerability and increasing the need for mental care.

Meanwhile, the increasing emotional and psychological strain that many people are experiencing is costly for societies. Already in 2010, as research by the WEF and the Harvard School of Public Health suggests, the global economic impact of mental disorders was US$2.5 trillion, with indirect costs (lost productivity, early retirement and so on) outstripping direct costs (diagnosis and treatment) by a ratio of around 2:1.72. Furthermore, the trend of mental distress is strongly connected to political polarization, volatile electoral results, and social unrest.


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