Are We Mentally Healthier In The 21st Century

The stress epidemic

In the earlier half of 20th Century, nobody really spoke about depression, stress or anxiety. It wasn’t that these words didn’t exist in the dictionary – but in the vocabulary of they weren’t heard to the almost ubiquitous level that they are now.

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And everything points towards stress being an epidemic. In the UK, hospital admissions for stress appeared to rise in a way that was related to the economic conditions. The spike in admissions was certainly significant – but what, exactly, did it signify?

One of the problematic areas when discussing mental health is that, on the one hand, it seems as if things are getting worse and worse the whole time. But there are a number of factors that, when taken into account, indicate that we are, at least, moving in the right direction when it comes to promoting mental health. The key points include the following:

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  • We’re more open as a society about mental health. As a result, people are more likely to seek advice and help with mental health issues.
  • Many companies now offer employee assistance programmes designed to provide a point of contact for staff who require support
  • Psychologists advise that ‘bottling up’ concerns only leads to increased stress – essentially, people are encouraged towards greater openness for their wellbeing

Paradoxically, we are arguably more mentally healthy – even if it’s simply because there is a greater level of acknowledgement that mental health issues exist. But it’s a work in progress – a recent survey reported in UK’s broadsheet newspaper The Telegraph, indicates that a lack of understanding persists to a degree in the workplace. 69 percent of the survey’s respondents within management “did not believe mental illness warranted time off work”.

Meanwhile, only 39 percent of employees said they’d tell the truth about their situation when taking sick leave for depression, stress or anxiety. The survey was carried out by AXA PPP healthcare, whose director of psychology is quoted in the article, highlighting the importance of ‘awareness and understanding of mental illness’ within senior management teams.

The road ahead

The 20th Century science fiction dystopia Brave New World envisioned a society whose spiritual ills were assuaged by a drug called soma. This vision of a self-medicating public – too artificially calmed to cause the state any trouble – has (thankfully) remained safely in the world of fiction.

Many of us would like to be able to escape the bustle and scrape of everyday life at the push of a button – but openness, talking therapies and the de-stigmatising of mental illness could yet prove to be a dramatic (if sadly not miraculous) long-term cure for the mental health problems that affect large numbers of people worldwide.

Are we mentally healthier as a species than we were in the 20th Century? If admitting the scale of the problem is the first step to recovery – then the answer has to be a resounding yes.