Some of the biggest threats to our mental health are surprisingly common and currently the norm for many. Who hasn’t felt lonely, witnessed/experienced stigma, felt overworked and burnt out, served by a healthcare system that treats mental health like an afterthought, or experienced little-to-know mental health education at school?
A new report by Cigna finds that over half (54%) of American’s feel lonely, and the younger generations are feeling it the most. Meanwhile, results from the US General Social Survey, finding that “zero” is the most common number of confidants that the average American has, are also rather shocking. Especially when considering that the connection between loneliness and both poor physical and mental health is unmistakable.
When it comes to physical health, loneliness is now considered to be worse than obesity, estimated to increase the risk of death anywhere from 50-90%. When it comes to mental health, it looks to be just as damaging. Research has found an association between loneliness and all manner of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, suicide, insomnia, personality disorder, delusions, and psychosis.
New evidence in mice indicates that social isolation changes brain chemistry and disrupts neuroplasticity, thereby changing neural networks in potentially dangerous ways. Although we don’t understand the connection quite yet, it is expected that social isolation can ravage mental health at the cellular level in humans too. Meanwhile, experiencing meaningful social connections and receiving social support is thought to counteract and protect against these changes.
2. Mental Illness Stigma
The stigma and resulting discrimination against people with mental health problems is a worldwide multifaceted problem. Lazy, weak, unable to cope with their problems, selfish, dangerous, and many other negative mental illness stereotypes have devastating consequences.
For those experiencing mental illness stigma, it is socially isolating, severely distressing, inhibits people from seeking treatment, and reinforces damaging stereotypes. It can even further worsen and incubate relatively minor mental health problems to the point of causing a long-lasting mental illness, or even suicide.
We are only just beginning to understand how big a suicide risk mental illness stigma is, where a “mentally ill” label can reduce self-esteem, encourage secrecy behaviors that act as a weighty barrier to the use of help-seeking behaviors, and promote suicidal ideation.
The emerging consensus amongst experts is that an alliance with the media will be essential to promote a marked change in the societal perception of mental health issues and #curestigma.
A stressful lifestyle or persistent daily stress at home or at work can lead to an exhausted state known as burnout. When people feel “burned out”, it is often described as a state of exhaustion where the individual doesn’t have the mental or physiological resources to cope with day to day challenges and situations. The fuel gauge is empty!
Burnout symptoms include chronic fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, anger and emotion control issues, impaired productivity, loss of appetite, and poor attention/concentration.
It is thought that burnout has a lasting impact on the brain’s physical structure that, in time, could lead to depression as a clinical disorder. This depends on how individual vulnerabilities (i.e., genetic risk) and situational factors (i.e., stressors) interact.
Whether burnout is a subtype of depression or is a distinct phenomenon is still an object of controversy. Nonetheless, initial investigations suggest the transition from health to burnout to depression is epigenetically controlled, where chronic stress can change the pattern of chemical marks on DNA that influences how genes work.
4. Fragmented Mental/Physical Healthcare Systems
Integrated care is the future of healthcare. Historically, Western medicine separated out mental and behavioral illnesses from physical illness. It is reflected in how today’s care public healthcare systems, hospitals, and staff predominantly intend to treat physical health problems.
The most recent New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) Catalyst Insights Council survey on mental and behavioral health integration into general healthcare reveals that 51% of Council members—a qualified group of U.S. executives and clinical leaders who are directly involved in healthcare delivery—consider their organizations’ mental and behavioral health services not very adequate or not at all adequate to meet patients needs.
The fragmentation between mental and physical health systems is arguably most troubling when it comes to health insurance, making access to quality mental health care practically impossible for many individuals. merging augmented mental health solutions employing the latest advances in objective mental health monitoring are set to be integral to bridging the gap between mental and physical health insurance and care.
5. Lack of Mental Health Education
Research suggests that ~50% of mental illness in adult life starts before age 15 and ~75% by age 18. This is one of the many reasons that primary school teachers across the globe are fighting to promote positive mental health in their schools and classrooms.
Both scientists and teachers alike have recognized the essential need for mental health training. As such, schools educate and support children about their emotional well-being, coping strategies for stressful emotions, self-awareness, self-care, and self-confidence.
Power Thoughts is an example of one of the many evidence-based mental health programmes now available for children, specifically a mindfulness-based course empowering children to tap into the ‘power’ of their minds in controlling their thoughts and emotions.
Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit. Welcome to the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit (DMHDRU). http://dunedinstudy.otago.ac.nz/
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