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Important to situate lot of mental health problems within the wider social crisis

By Bharat Dogra 

Our troubled world appears to be progressing much more in terms of estimating and measuring problems than in terms of understanding and solving them. This wider truth appears to be particularly applicable to mental health problems.
The capacity to recognize mental health problems at an early stage is much higher in more prosperous societies which also have much better access to mental health facilities. Hence it was hoped that with early diagnosis and treatment, these countries would show the way in minimizing mental health problems. Unfortunately the recent experience appears to be exactly the opposite in many of these societies as alarming indicators of a very serious mental health situation are being reported.
In October 2021 three leading child health organizations in the USA issued a statement warning that a child mental health emergency already exists in the USA. In April 2022 the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that children as young as 8 should be screened for anxiety.
In September 2011 the then largest study on mental health in Europe found that “Europeans are plagued by mental and neurological illness, with almost 165 million people or 38% of population suffering each year from a brain disorder such as depression, anxiety, insomnia or dementia” ( Reuters report-- Nearly 40% of Europeans suffer mental illness).
In 2015, in Japan suicide was listed as the number one cause of death among children in the 10-18 age-group. In much of the western world this is the number two cause. Over half a million people in Japan (541,000) are identified as hikikomori--social recluses who withdraw from all contacts, sometimes for years.
In the USA 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders. In 2019, a typical year, according to official data, 12 million Americans thought about suicide and 1.4 million attempted suicide. Suicide ideation affects 4.6% of population in a year and has seen steady increase during the last decade.
According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association in October 2021, “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020 and by 2018 suicide was the second leading leading cause of deaths for youth age 10-24. The pandemic has intensified the crisis: across the country we have witnessed dramatic increase in the Emergency Department visits to all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide rate.”
According to Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ youth in the USA covered in their study had experienced suicide thoughts. In the context of bullying, not just the victims but also the perpetrators of bullying have a higher suicide rate. By the age of 13, a third of bullies have already considered ending their life, according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Children living in families having guns have suicide rates four times higher than those living in families without a gun.
According to UNICEF annual report on children for 2021, in Europe in the 15-19 age group, 19% boys and 16% girls are affected by mental health disorders. In the 10-19 year age-group 9 million teenagers in Europe are affected by mental health disorders, one half of them by depression and anxiety. A WHO report said in 2020 that 1 out of 4 children in Europe are affected by nervousness, irritation and problems in getting to sleep. 35% had started drinking alcohol by age 15. Only 41% of boys and 33% of girls said they were mentally healthy. A German health insurance company DAK stated in 2019 that 1 in 4 German children were affected by mental illness problems.
While generally the focus is more on children of poorer families, some other studies indicate the serious situation in prosperous households as well. A study of 15 year old British girls in more prosperous sections of society revealed a high and increasing trend of mental health problems-- startling increase from 24% to 38% from 1987 to 1999.
Clearly such disturbing increase in mental health problems needs to be better understood in the context of wider problems and changes in society. We should not forget that mere calls for increasing mental health budgets and wider coverage of mental health care, although certainly needed, have not been adequate for preventing a worsening situation. These should be backed by more and better preventive steps rooted in a more holistic understanding of the crisis.
In particular it is important to situate a lot of the mental health problems within the wider social crisis. Some components of the social crisis which need to be emphasized in this context are –increasing economic inequalities, rising costs of living and economic difficulties for a significant number of people, worries over such basic needs as housing rents and mortgages, increasing spread of consumerist culture and saturation advertising of seemingly desirable products , overselling of expensive life-style accessible only to some and spread of cultural values which seek life’s fulfillment in accessing it. A culture of celebrating narrowly defined success and condemning all too soon any inability to access this narrowly defined success adds to this. Discriminations on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, color, faith, gender and sexual orientation etc. are also important factors. Widely pervasive feelings of dominance and the violence inherent in them can be very hurtful, as seen in domestic, school, workplace or street violence. Breakdown of social relationships, relating these more to sensual gratification and selfish instincts instead of more durable, sincere and affectionate ties, can be very distressing and disrupting, increasing a deeper loneliness within the multiple relationships and partying of a society always linked to and influenced much by social media.
All this is partially relevant, at a different level, in less prosperous societies as well, but in many of these, with high levels of poverty and inequalities, what is most tragic is the almost shutting down of doors and opportunities for many as they are exposed to more ups and downs of highly globalized, linked up systems, something which can be more disruptive than the more traditional forms of poverty.
It is important to understand that several socio-economic trends, which have been normalized by society as commonplace, can be much more distressing and disruptive than is commonly believed, resulting in a big increase in mental health problems, which concerns us here, but in addition also in some other serious problems like crime and confused, irrational groupings. If more than one in five or one in six in a society have mental health problems, it may be more relevant to ask if the society is sick, not so much the individuals, as individuals may be merely manifesting the scars of society’s sickness. Heal the society, therefore and most individuals within it will heal too.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Planet in Peril' and ‘Man over Machine—A Path to Peace'

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