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The other deadly pandemic

Our mental health crisis is the new global killer, contributing to over 14% of all deaths

Mental health
Suicide ranks as the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29.NATHANAEL KIEFER (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Moisés Naím

The world’s governments are currently dedicating enormous resources to containing Covid-19 and its mutations. Fortunately, they are succeeding. What is less fortunate is that they are neglecting another pandemic that has been claiming millions of lives each year, as well as disabling thousands more – mental illness.

Pandemics are known to spread rapidly and attack a large number of victims. That’s precisely the case with the current mental health crisis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly one billion people suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, isolation, dementia, drug and alcohol use, schizophrenia and eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia), among other problems. In fact, 14.3% of worldwide deaths each year – some 8 million people – can be attributed to mental disorders.

Depression, for example, is the world’s leading cause of disability. And suicide ranks as the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29.

According to Project Hope, an NGO that specializes on these issues, someone somewhere commits suicide every 40 seconds. Men take their lives twice as often as women. In turn, depression is twice as common in women as in men. Although suicide is a global phenomenon, its highest incidence is in lower-income countries. In 2019, for example, 77% of suicides in the world occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

Covid-19 produced a 25% increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression.

But the mental health crisis was already in full swing long before the pandemic. Jonathan Haidt, a renowned social psychologist, maintains that the rise in teenage mental illness in the United States began in 2012. According to him, the crisis “is related in large part to the transition to phone-based childhoods, with a special emphasis on social media.”

The evidence in the US is overwhelming. Between 2004 and 2020, the number of American adolescents suffering from major depression increased by 145% for girls and 161% for boys. Since 2010, college students suffering from anxiety have increased by 134% and those with bipolar disorders by 57%. Between 2010 and 2020, suicides among teenage girls increased by 82%. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that between 2011 and 2021 the number of young women who feel persistently hopeless and sad increased by 60%.

About 15% of the adolescent girls interviewed by the CDC revealed that they had been forced to have sex, an increase of 27% in two years. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hospital Association, and other US medical institutions have declared a “National State of Emergency” regarding children’s mental health.

On the other hand, the misuse and unhealthy abuse of digital technologies are not exclusive to young people. Middle-aged and elderly men and women also show the negative impact of social media on their lives when these technologies are used in an abusive or toxic way.

This is a global crisis. Statistics and studies in around the world show similar trends. The Mental Health Million Project is a 2022 report based on surveys of more than 220,000 people in 34 countries. The study shows a decline in mental health across all age and gender groups. It also found that English-speaking countries have the lowest levels of mental well-being and that, in terms of age, the 18-24 age group has the worst mental health of all the groups surveyed.

Unfortunately, a shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals is the global norm. According to Project Hope, two thirds of those who need help do not receive it, even though there are effective treatments available. Many lower-income countries have less than one mental health specialist for every 100,000 people.

Cultural and institutional factors make patient care difficult. In many countries and cultures, having mental health problems is stigmatized, so many keep their troubles hidden. Admitting you suffer from mental health problems can cost you your job, your partner and your friends. From the institutional point of view, the major challenge involves ensuring access to mental health coverage – which can be prohibitively expensive, especially when it is only available privately.

Fortunately, things are changing. Artificial intelligence and remote treatment via the internet will allow access to the health system for patients currently shut out from it. There are also promising advances in medication and treatments. In many countries, shame is being replaced by activism that encourages transparency and channels fresh resources to address these problems.

No problem can be solved until it has been recognized, studied and debated. The mental health pandemic is a crisis that needs to be pulled into the light where it can be examined, analyzed, and, ultimately, cured.

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