Why is mental health on the rise?
Not long ago I was fortunate to speak for a few minutes on a local radio station about mental health and the work that Visyon does. As I saw the red light come on and the presenter begin the segment I psyched myself up for the questions that I might face: how long has Visyon been around? How many clients do you see a year? What kind of experiences have your clients had that lead to their referral to Visyon? But when the moment came it seemed we were going for the big questions.
“So why is mental health on the rise?”
Right then. So there’s a couple of reasons why this isn’t as straight-forward a question as it seems, and I’m going to try and work through them below.
What do we mean when we say ‘mental health’?
The first thing I notice in this question is something that happens a lot: using the phrase “mental health” when really we mean “mental illness”. The presenter was actually asking me why more people are experiencing mental health issues, and I think the difference between what he meant and what he said sheds light on a widespread misconception: that the only time we talk about mental health is when we’re talking about mental ill-health. This doesn’t really make any logical sense. If I said “physical health is on the rise” I would mean that physical health is improving. This makes it clear how inverse the common understanding of mental health can be.
Mental health vs physical health
So why the big misunderstanding? Every single human being in the world has more or less mental health at any one time, just like every human being is more or less physically healthy each moment. The concept of mental health is something that applies to all humans, and just like physical health, there are so many ways in which it can be affected that our overall mental health will vary over time. If I break my leg or develop meningitis, my overall physical health decreases, and as I recover, my physical health improves again. It is much the same with mental health. If I encounter stress at work or experience a bereavement, my overall mental health is depleted. As I receive treatment and make a recovery, my mental health improves.
The above examples demonstrate that that in a similar way to physical health, things external to ourselves affect our mental health. However, the way we are built means that some of us are more prone to certain chronic physical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, MS or cancer. Similarly, people receive diagnoses for chronic mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression or PTSD.
The more comparisons we draw, the more similarities we see between the way that all humans beings experience varying levels of physical and mental health at different points in their life. Nobody thinks of themselves as immune from physical health complaints, and neither should we consider that mental health issues and their symptoms only happen to other people.
So are more people experiencing mental illness?
Probably not. Think about the question “are more people experiencing physical illness?” and you’ll soon realise how impossible it is to meaningfully answer that question. There are infinite ways to experience changes in your mental health and infinite things which affect it, so quantifying an overall increase or decrease in the mental health of nation is near impossible. However, if we’re talking about an increase in the number of cases of diagnosed serious mental illnesses then that might well be something we are seeing as a society. But this doesn’t necessarily mean more people are experiencing mental illness or that the overall mental wellness of the nation is depleted. What we have seen is a huge cultural shift which is chipping away at the stigma around talking about mental health. As more and more people feel comfortable asking for help we will see an increase in the statistics around mental illness, but this is actually a great thing. This means that people are finally getting the help they need and are no longer ashamed of the things they’ve been feeling. We all have feelings and life is fraught with discomfort and difficulty from beginning to end. It stands to reason that things will get on top of us sometimes. But this is normal, and I’m thrilled to see people talking, tweeting and blogging about it.
Mental health is enjoying a moment in the media spotlight but that doesn’t mean it’s a new thing and it doesn’t necessarily mean that mental ill health is ‘on the rise’. So, rather than speculate about why we’re all ‘going mad’, let’s celebrate that we’re all finally talking, and keep those conversations going. Long may they continue!