Form 6 pupil Annie-May has been exploring the question “Will mental illness always exist?” as part of her Psychology A-level.
It is incredibly difficult to predict the future of mental illness and whether or not it will exist in the future, but it is likely for some form of psychological illnesses to continue to exist. This is because mental illness is caused by complex interactions between psychological, biological and environmental factors. While our understanding of mental illness is constantly evolving with advancements in medicine leading to more effective treatments, it is unlikely for these effecting factors to simply disappear.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, we cannot predict the changes to society and culture that may impact the prevalence and expression of mental illness. The issue of these unpredictable socio-cultural developments and their impacts on the existence of mental illness into the future is becoming increasingly prevalent but there are steps that are being taken already to reduce the number of people with mental illness globally.
When it was first being created, computer scientists had no idea what impact technology and social media would have on the population and they have become a huge part of our day-to-day life, with 4.76 billion (as of January 2023) users worldwide using various platforms to communicate, share information and keep up to date with the latest news or trends1 .
While these platforms have their benefits, it will come as no surprise that it is the fault of social media for a severe spike in the number of cases of mental illnesses, particularly in the younger generation. found by many studies including the US study on the association between social media use and depression among young adults in 2016.
This found that overusing social media can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and poor body image. Through conducting a survey which asked about social media usage and mental health, the sample of 1,787 participants aged 19-32 revealed a strong correlation between the two co-variables, with high social media use leading to poor mental health. In addition to this, while many agree that social media is a beneficial form of communication, it also has a major impact on increased symptoms of loneliness as it could potentially provide a false sense of companionship that is not genuine or fulfilling. It gives a distorted view of reality and reduces face-to-face interaction.2
Moreover, it is not only cyberbullying that can have a severe psychological impact but also the unrealistic portrayal of influencers’ lifestyles and physical appearances can lead to eating disorders or depression as people try to achieve these unattainable images.2
Another societal change that was difficult to predict was the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of COVID on the population’s mental health was alarming including increased rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and consequently, an increased demand for mental health services. According to a recent survey7, 21% of adults in Great Britain reported symptoms of depression, more than double the level observed before the pandemic.
The severity of this increase is shown through the rates of people with suicidal ideations rising from 8.1% of adults in the UK in April 2020 compared to 5.2% in 2019. This growth in prevalence of those with psychological struggles has also strained mental health services.
A survey by the Royal College of Nursing (2013) found that 40% of nurses in the UK were experiencing anxiety, depression or both. This could be due to the increased pressure because of the pandemic, the shortage of NHS workers, or the lack of government funding to support the combination of these demands.
This drastic impact on the population’s mental health is most likely a result of heightened use of social media leading to feelings of isolation from the rest of society as well as the feeling of uncertainty increasing stress and anxiety levels.
Since we cannot be sure of the future of mental illness, we must be aware of the damages that it can cause especially if 59% of the population are using social media1. The withdrawal from social activities and relationships is one of the many damages of these problems. People may feel a lack of confidence in themselves when struggling and this can lead to them feeling lonely even around big groups of people which in turn can result in the population becoming disconnected in face-to-face communications. Even now, two years later, we are still seeing the effects of our ‘pandemic children’, who lacked social experiences and are still struggling with social development, which will have a knock-on effect to emotional and cognitive development too. 4/5
Furthermore, poor mental health can affect an individual’s ability to focus and complete tasks effectively. A combination between this disconnection and lack of productivity can result in detrimental impacts on individuals’ day-to-day lives as well as the economy.
Additionally, social media could arguably be addictive with social media reinforcing our need for instant gratification and dopamine hits, which has become a normalised behaviour. For example, the recent introduction of ChatGTP alongside Google means that questions can be answered quickly. This can reinforce our need for instant information, often presented to us in 30-second reels, videos and posts, creating an impatient culture. This is supported by the fact that there are even now UK addiction centres. 3
If this is the case, what steps have we already taken to overcome this ever-worsening problem? Despite having been recognised throughout human history, it wasn’t until the late 18th century and early 19th century that mental illness began to be viewed as a medical condition requiring specialised treatment in the Western world. This progression can be seen through therapies psychologists have developed.
Examples of this come from behavioural and cognitive psychologists, Ellis and Beck who created forms of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which, according to a review of meta-analysis on the efficiency of CBT 6 , is hugely successful for treating a vast range of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar and anxiety disorders. This therapy aims to challenge irrational and unhealthy thoughts in order to change behaviour, and its success can be seen in our NHS which offers this therapy for free. One of the next steps from these therapies is the Human Genome Project (2003) which helped psychologists understand what treatments would be most beneficial to an individual depending on different genetic make ups.
Despite having more acceptance and understanding, mental illness still has a lot of stigma around it in many societies and is often not taken as seriously as physical illness because it is not as concrete in terms of diagnostics. Overall, my stance on this question lies in the answer of uncertainty.
Our future is unpredictable, but mental illness is arguably inevitable, continuing to exist in some form. Ultimately, our goal should be to improve our understanding of mental health by researching and raising awareness to provide effective support and treatment to those who need it, with the hope of reducing its impact on individuals and society as a whole. Mental illness will always exist, but our attitude towards it can change.
Annie-May, Form 6