The deeper causes of a mental health meltdown

21st Century problems? Four potential causes of stress and anxiety.

Is mental illness the world’s biggest problem? The Duke of Sussex is one of a growing number of people who believe if we do not solve this crisis today, the future will be a disaster.

Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey sit in identical beige armchairs in identical empty rooms, staring at each other through a giant screen.

As Oprah listens intently, Harry opens up about how “shame” and stigma prevent families from talking about mental wellbeing. When his wife Meghan told him she felt suicidal, Harry admits, he simply did not know how to respond.

This is a bonus episode of the pair’s series The Me You Can’t See, released in the early hours of Friday. For Apple TV+, the show has been a huge success, bringing a 25% increase in new viewers to the platform.

Many say this is no surprise. Today, nearly one billion people worldwide are living with a mental health problem.

But why exactly are so many suffering?

Climate crisis. Prince Harry believes there is a clear link between mental health and climate change.

“With kids growing up in today’s world, pretty depressing, right, depending on where you live, your home country is either on fire or underwater, houses or forests are being flattened,” he told Oprah.

Harry is not the only one worrying. Last week, scientists at Imperial College London warned of a vicious cycle of climate catastrophes, trauma and depression.

“Mental health is the unseen impact of climate change at the moment,” says academic Emma Lawrance. “It is a big problem that is going to affect more and more people into the future.”

The pandemic. “Pre-Covid there was probably a situation of ‘us and them’ when it came to mental illness,” declares Prince Harry. “Now I think it’s just ‘us’.”

During the lockdown, people put their lives on hold. Many were anxious, lonely and bored. In January, one in four young people told the UK’s Prince’s Trust they were unable to cope with life as a result of the pandemic.

Digital distraction. Today, more people have mobile phones than toilets. Some scientists say our brains are not prepared. Humans evolved over millennia to focus on just one thing at a time – be it food, shelter or danger.

Now, digital stimuli are everywhere – from ringing phones to email notifications – and for many, it is completely overwhelming.

“We are all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit content,” says neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

Social media. “Facebook envy” is a real problem, according to a study by academics at the University of Copenhagen. People who do not use the site feel more satisfied with their lives.

“When we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control,” warns Dr Tim Bono.

Bad news overload. Migrant children dying in the Mediterranean. Terrorist attacks on city streets. Rising tensions with Russia.

In the 24-hour news cycle, disaster is everywhere. Feelings of anxiety are so common after watching news bulletins that one American therapist has even coined a name for it: “headline stress disorder”.

Is mental illness the world’s biggest problem?

Stressed out

Of course it is, say some. Prince Harry is right. The world is sleepwalking into a catastrophe. Young people are growing up in a time defined by both political uncertainty and unprecedented digitalisation – it is no wonder their health is suffering. Experts predict that the world’s mental health crisis will cost £12tn by 2030 – roughly equivalent to the total GDP of China and Japan combined.

It is not so simple, say others. Scientists will not know for many years the impact of climate change, Covid-19 and the digital world on mental health. The statistics look bad – but many experts believe that this is because more people than ever before are reaching out, receiving a diagnosis and getting help for their mental health problems. Fewer people are suffering in silence.

You Decide

  1. Is modern society bad for mental health?
  2. Why was mental health a taboo topic for so many years?

Activities

  1. Keep a diary for one week tracking how long you spend on social media and using digital technology. Record your emotions each day – do you feel better or worse on days you spend more time online? Compare your experience with a partner.
  2. What could your school do to improve students’ mental health? In groups, come up with a proposal and then present your idea to the class.

Some People Say...

“I knew well enough that one could fracture one’s legs and recover afterward, but I did not know that you could fracture the brain in your head and recover from that too.”

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Dutch artist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people around the world are becoming more comfortable talking about mental wellbeing. In 2019, a poll by the American Psychological Association found that 87% of US adults believe that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. But there are still differences between groups. In the UK, 40% of men say they will not talk to anyone about their mental health, and in Australia, three quarters of all suicide attempts involve men.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how exactly changing global temperatures affect mental health. Scientists already know that as the temperature rises, so does the rate of suicide. A study found that for every 1C increase in the monthly average temperature, suicide rates rise by 0.7% in the US and 2.1% in Mexico. But no one knows exactly why this happens. One theory is high temperatures change how blood flows to the brain. Others suggest lost sleep during warmer nights may be responsible.

Word Watch

The Me You Can’t See
The Duke revealed that he began planning the mental health documentary series with Oprah two years ago – before he and Meghan stepped down as senior Royals.
Mental health problem
The most common mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and dementia.
Catastrophes
A new report explains how extreme weather events such as wildfires leave people traumatised and food scarcity is leading to stress and depression.
Prince’s Trust
A UK charity set up by Prince Charles in 1976 to help vulnerable young people.
Overwhelming
Scientists say humans have a vast appetite for information and data but a limited capacity for attention.
Dr Tim Bono
Bono is an American psychology lecturer and the author of self help book When Likes Aren’t Enough.
GDP
Gross Domestic Product is the total monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a specific time period.

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