Someone asked me recently if there is a significant increase in the prevalence of mental illness since it seems everyone is in treatment somewhere. It was a good question and got me thinking.
The prevalence of mental illness has been increasing in recent years, but it is unclear if this is solely due to more people seeking treatment or if there is a true increase in the incidence of mental illness.
In my opinion, the most likely explanation for the increase in people being diagnosed with mental illness is a reduction in the stigma associated with mental illness. In the past, people may have been reluctant to seek treatment for fear of being labeled as mentally ill. However, as society has become more accepting of mental illness, more people may be willing to seek help. Looking at the generation of my children who were born in the 90s, it appears that their acceptance of mental illness is significantly improved over people from my parent’s generation. They are more likely to share their symptoms and the fact that they are in treatment than the older generations where stigma stopped them from even talking about it.
Apart from the generational differences, it is likely that the increase in people seeking treatment is due to greater awareness of mental health issues. With more information available about the symptoms and treatment of mental illness, people may be more likely to recognize when they are experiencing mental health problems and seek help. That combined with reduced stigma can create an illusion of a higher prevalence of mental illness in our society.
It is also possible that there is a true increase in the incidence of mental illness. Changes in lifestyle, such as increased stress, social isolation, and decreased physical activity, may contribute to the development of mental health problems. We live in an increasingly interactive society with immense amount of informational instantly at our fingertips through smartphones and social media which can keep us at a heightened level of stress at all times.
It is difficult to say whether the increase in the number of people seeking treatment for mental illness is solely due to a reduction in stigma and greater awareness or if there is a true increase in the incidence of mental illness. However, what is clear is that mental health problems have been around since the beginning of human presence and are a significant public health issue that needs to be addressed, and seeking treatment is an important step in managing these conditions. Any steps taken by a society to encourage more dialogue will help in continuing to fight the stigma and to improve our population’s overall mental health.
Zahid Awan is a psychiatrist.