Mental health around the world

8 October 2019

Mental illness is on the rise around the world, but why?

Around 13%1 of the global population are affected by mental illness – that’s around 971 million people, and depression is reported to have risen 33% between 2013 and 20182. So, are we becoming more depressed? Are the pressures of modern life causing us more anxiety? And what can we do to improve global mental health?

Mental illness can affect anyone at any time in their life and does not discriminate. There are many mental disorders but the most common are depression, anxiety, bipolar, eating disorders and schizophrenia.

The global cost of mental health

In 2016, stress, anxiety and other mental health issues overtook muscular-skeletal issues as the leading cause of sick days, and according to a study by Our World in Data, mental ill-health was the leading causes of disability worldwide in 2017 with anxiety and depression being the largest contributors3.

The figures make it clear that the challenges of 21st century life are taking their toll on many of us. The BBC has suggested that economic uncertainty, increased terror threat, loneliness, digital overload, social media and rising expectations of what life should be like could all contribute to the increase in mental health issues4.

Do we need to disconnect from our digital world? 

Over the last decade, technology has dramatically changed the way we live and work. Smartphones and digital technology have given us the freedom to connect with people at anytime, anywhere. Even if we’re living on opposite sides of the world, we’re able to communicate at the touch of a button. But along with convenience, flexibility and accessibility comes the effect that all that constant digital contact is having on our mental health.

In Kenya, nearly 60% of people own smartphones and almost all of them admitted that they find it hard to put their phone down5; and in China, a new ‘phone lane’ has been created for slow walkers who are looking at their phones6. With smartphones and social media designed to draw us in, we’ve become hooked.

Every time we get a notification, whether it’s a meeting invitation, an incoming video call, or an Instagram like, our brains get a kick of positive chemicals called endorphins which keep us coming back for more. The anticipation of that endorphin kick keeps us on constant alert and checking our phones. This continuous stimulation causes levels of the stress hormone cortisol to rise, and this can make us feel on-edge and panicky. It can also lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

Lonely together

Despite the fact that we’re more connected than ever, loneliness is also on the rise. A 2018 study found that more than 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in the US and 23% in the UK always or often feel lonely or isolated7.

When we asked a group of expats which factors made it difficult for them to integrate into their new countries, 55% said ‘missing friends and family’. 43% of those we asked said ‘making new friends’ was their biggest challenge.

We also asked how living abroad has affected them, and whilst responses were generally more positive than negative, 8% of people said that they felt more isolated. So whilst we may feel that with new technology we’re more connected than ever – those connections feel less meaningful. This could be a result of the way modern life leaves little time to form those meaningful connections, and the fact that it can be harder to put yourself out there when you’re new in town.

Mental health conditions are complex, and the cause can be hard to define. But the current pace and expectations of life do seem to have the potential to negatively affect our mental wellbeing. Our brains need time to relax and process each day. We need to do the things we enjoy, like seeing our friends and family, getting regular exercise and making sure we get quality, uninterrupted sleep. These things are all hard to do when our devices are constantly distracting us.

More about common mental health issues from our physiologists

Depression

Everyone can feel low from time to time, but depression can make you feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months at a time. If you have depression you might feel a sense of hopelessness and lose interest in things you used to enjoy. You might also feel tearful and anxious, constantly tired and have reduced libido, appetite and motivation. 

What can help?

Lifestyle changes can help improve mood in people suffering from depression. Stop drinking or smoking, eat healthily, spend more time outdoors and make time for regular exercise. A doctor might prescribe talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or antidepressants – or a combination of both. If you think you might be experiencing a mental health issue, our virtual doctor service can provide you with the reassurance and direction to help get you back on track. You can book a virtual appointment at a time that suits you and speak to someone in your language. You can find out more about the service and how to use it, here. 

Anxiety

The human body has a fight, flight or freeze response that’s designed to prepare us to take action against a threat. If you have anxiety, your body triggers this response inappropriately – for example as a reaction to negative thoughts. This leads to a combination of both physical and psychological symptoms including feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, feeling a sense of dread and also dizziness, shaking, stomach cramps, ringing in the ears or a racing heart.

What can help?

Mindfulness has shown to be very effective in helping people with anxiety recognise their thoughts and feelings. If you’re interested in giving mindfulness a try, we’ve recently developed two mindfulness podcasts to help our customers around the world find a bit of quiet in their minds. Why not give them a go? They’ll guide you through mindful walking and mindful breathing. 

Other ways to reduce anxiety include yoga, breathing techniques and reducing your intake of sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. If your anxiety is severe, you might also be offered antidepressants to help regulate your mood or beta-blockers to help with the physical symptoms, as well as talking therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Stress and burnout

The right amount of stress in our lives is useful and helps us thrive. But too much can become overwhelming and start to affect our mental health. Burnout relates specifically to work stress and feeling over-worked and undervalued. Both can cause symptoms such as a sense of being out of control, feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, low self-esteem, difficulty quietening the mind, general aches and pains, weakened immune system, racing heart and general lethargy. 

What can help?

Unlike many mental health issues, stress and burnout often has an identifiable cause. Addressing this will hugely help to reduce your stress levels. You can also try relaxation techniques, finding time to unwind, not checking work emails outside of work hours, and reducing screen time. Spending time doing things you enjoy with family and friends will also help to improve your mood. 

An important part of managing stress is resilience – or how easily you’re able to ‘bounce back’ from a difficult experience. Resilience is in all of us, but it’s like a muscle that needs to be trained to become stronger. We’ve developed some top tips for building resilience for you and your family.

1https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/03/mental-illness-is-there-really-a-global-epidemic

2https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2018/11/28/mental-health-is-a-growing-concern-here-are-some-ways-entrepreneurs-can-cope/#206d4b8e194e

3https://www.raconteur.net/business-innovation/wellness-crisis-employers

4https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41125009

5https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001273574/alarm-over-growing-problem-of-smartphone-addiction

6https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/sep/15/china-mobile-phone-lane-distracted-walking-pedestrians 

7https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/08/31/loneliness-is-pervasive-and-rising-particularly-among-the-young