Why are mental illness rates up so much across the developed world?

Mental illness and mental health struggles are getting worse all over the world. 

In fact as the World Health Organization (WHO) notes, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among people 15 to 29-years-old worldwide and an estimated 13% of people worldwide have an addiction or mental health disorder.

As the Jacinto Convit World Organization observes:

“Men and women alike with general mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014.” 

Outlook was already worsening before COVID hit

It’s also undeniable that COVID and the pandemic made the mental health crisis worse. 

Prior to COVID assessing 2019 statistics showed that 16.9% of Americans had an addiction or mental health struggle. 

By the end of 2020, approximately 40% of Americans were reporting a serious struggle with depression or anxiety. 

This is particularly true, however, in the developed world and in wealthier, post-industrial nations. 

In 2019, fully 18.3% of Spaniards and 19.3% of Australians, for example reported serious mental health struggles as compared to 10.6% of Indonesians, 10.7% of Nigerians and 9.5% of Vietnamese. This begs the question…

Why is this happening?

Why are mental illness rates up so much across the developed world?

And why were they already steadily trending upward over the past decades even before COVID?

As in any important issue, there are many angles from which to approach. 

Growing mental illness can be linked to social, economic, religious, political and even environmental factors.

In this article I want to explore the thesis that developed countries are suffering from mental illness skyrocketing as a result of two primary causes:

A crisis of meaning and a pathologization of pain.

A crisis of meaning

As Eternalized compellingly argues, there are convincing indicators that skyrocketing mental illness rates in the developed world are part of a crisis of meaning. 

“Capitalism, individualism and hedonism” haven’t brought us the happiness they promised. 

In fact there has been a “significant rise” in mental illness as individualism has been emphasized about “external order” and meaning. 

The coinciding introduction of mechanized economics and the subjective, individual perspective in clash with groups that lack real meaning and purpose leaves many individuals out in the cold.

As psychologist Thomas Tzasz says, the psychiatric establishment uses the “mental illness” label to pick out anybody who doesn’t fit into the modern order. 

Tzasz says many perceived mental illnesses are actually an attempt to grapple with a crisis of meaning in modern life, and calling them an independent objective illness is just providing cover for real and very serious problems in outer society.

As the philosopher Kierkegaard also said, people who feel trapped in their routine that isn’t very meaningful often have a kind of deep despair that would outwardly appear as a kind of depressive psychosis. 

When you feel like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up and down a hill forever, depression seems like a rational reaction!

Are these people mentally ill, or having a legitimate crisis of a lack of meaning. 

Are they mentally ill or simply responding in a very strong, psychic way to a broken and diseased society, breaking through to a kind of new world? 

As Goethe’s Faust memorably says:

“A sweet yearning, beyond my understanding, 

Set me wandering through woods and fields,

And while a thousand tears were burning

I felt a world around me come to be.”

The collapse of centralized religion and the advent of rationalism in the Enlightenment are still impacting us today. 

Nietzsche’s “death of God” is not just a trite statement, it’s an ongoing reality in society and the advent of science, even for individual believers in God. 

The existential vacuum and mass neurosis in our world is people’s cry for meaning according to psychologists such as Viktor Frankl who developed a system of logotherapy. 

This is based on having a purpose for your existence, rather than just treating uncomfortable symptoms. 

As Frankl said, when we don’t have a real why to our existence, every step we take becomes a burden and loses its meaning. 

A pathologization of pain

The second reason why mental illness rates are up so much across the developed world is the pathologization of pain. 

As sincere psychologists like Frankl have pointed out, the growth in mental illness isn’t random and is deeply linked to a lack of meaning and the breakdown of a group telos or objective.

I personally have struggled with serious panic disorder and clinical depression. I do take mainstream medication and believe it is necessary for some individuals. 

At the same time, I recognize that certain outer circumstances play a role in my condition and that many terms such as “depression” and “anxiety” have been taken over and falsified. 

What I mean is that if you feel anxious or very stressed, you now are considered to potentially be suffering from an anxiety disorder

In fact, you are just anxious or stressed, not mentally ill. 

Anxiety or panic as a mental illness is a thousand times more intense, irrational and all-consuming than being very worried or stressed about something in your life. 

One is a mental illness, the other is a mental state that tends to recede once a situation or anxiety is resolved. 

Depression as a mental illness is also all-consuming and irrational, sucking all color and vivacity from life and your desire to live and making everything in the world seem meaningless and hopeless, even joyful things. 

Feeling depressed, however, is what people say when they are very sad or feeling awful about something in life. This isn’t a mental illness, it’s an experience of being very sad. 

By making feeling stressed and feeling sad into mental illnesses, psychologists and psychiatrists gain millions of new patients and pharmaceutical companies gain millions of new customers. 

There is no doubt that there are people genuinely suffering from chemically-based mental illness, including things like bipolar, dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia and full-blown psychotic disorders. 

But the idea that somebody who’s sad over their divorce and drinking is suffering from “clinical depression” in need of medication seems just a bit too convenient. 

Could it not be that he is simply very, very sad about his divorce? 

Approaching everything from the angle of a chemical disorder while ignoring the outer causes is blatant malpractice and ignores reality. 

Looking more deeply at the numbers also shows a strong motive: profit. 

The American pharmaceutical industry made $550 billion in revenue in 2021 and accounts for around 48% of the world’s pharmaceutical market.

This is a national level pill mill. 

Keeping it going is more or less the job of the psychiatric and medical establishment.

Looking ahead to solutions

Looking ahead to solutions is about addressing the twin threats of lack of meaning and over-diagnosis. 

Being scared of a car that’s about to hit you and trembling for an hour afterwards is not a mental illness, it’s a justified anxiety response to a life threatening situation. 

Being sad about being rejected by a person you really want to date and feeling hopeless about the future for a few weeks is not a mental illness, it’s a justified sad response to a disappointing situation. 

By pathologizing pain and taking advantage of the loneliness and desperation in many people’s lives, the pharmaceutical and psychological industry has pathologized pain and made suffering into an illness that must be cured. 

The reality is that we all need meaning in our lives and that some amount of suffering is part of life. 

Meaning must be restored, especially to public life with more teams, clubs, events, fraternities, social occasions and spiritual and religious life. 

Pathologizing pain must be ended and called out as we recognize the positive aspects of courage, hard work and even painful struggle in the pursuit of meaningful goals. 

Pursuing these twin objectives will help decrease the disturbing rise in those who are being told they are mentally ill and in those who really are. 

Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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