For some time now, perhaps the last thirty or forty years, there appears to have been a growing crisis in the mental health of Planet Earth. Befrienders.org (http://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics) say that global suicide rates have risen 60% in the last 45 years, and are presently at the rate of 1 every 40 seconds. By 2020 they expect it to be 1 every 20 seconds.
It’s not hard to find statistics like these from even the most momentary web search. All evidence seems to suggest that, at least within recent memory, things are getting worse at a rate of knots – measurable by, for instance, the suddenness with which depression in young people has become the enormous issue it now is. Even without citing statistics it’s possible to know that teenagers today are dropping out of school with depression at a completely unprecedented rate. Certainly to my mind the mental health issue could be the biggest one facing humanity today. I distinctly remember being 20 years old, starting at university and slowly finding that virtually everyone I knew seemed to be struggling with a mental health problem – usually anxiety or depression, or more often both. It was the first time I’d really begun to understand the scale of the thing, and I was struck by the thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’
Surely it hasn’t always been like this?
Well, it must be acknowledged that it might have been. Before further discussion I need to nod to the distinct possibility that my argument that this ‘crisis’ is new might be totally bogus. After all, information about what we now term ‘mental health’ is sparse the further back into history you go, and of course there are all sorts of questions about whether in the past we would have reported depression like we do now, and indeed whether we recognise it as capital D ‘Depression’. There’s no question that things like depression and anxiety have always existed – think of the many famous cases of suicide throughout history, or even fictional characters like Konstantin Levin in ‘Anna Karenina’ who lies awake at night in fits of despair over the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of his own existence. These days this would be termed anxiety disorder resulting from depersonalisation.
But in reality I acknowledge this possibility in order to re-emphasise my conviction that this is indeed a crisis. Within the last forty or so years, during which time the way in which depression is recognised, reported and filed has been more or less standard, the numbers have shot up like someone’s glued them to a rocket. The National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) in the US, for example, found that the number of US citizens diagnosed with depression has increased 450% since 1987. There are now more than five times the number of people on anti-depressants than thirty years ago.
One Independent article last year cites statistics showing that rates of anxiety and depression in UK teenagers has soared by 70% in the last 25 years, and that 93% of teachers have reported seeing a rise in the mental unwellness of their pupils. Similar statistics are simply piling in: in 2016 the NSPCC reported a 35% increase in demand for child anxiety counselling in the UK, while on a global scale the WHO predicts depression to be the second biggest debilitating illness by 2020 and the biggest by 2030. The same organisation has observed an 18% rise in global depression between 2005-2015. I could go on.
So while the arguments surrounding a perceived rise in mental illness are inherently problematic, given the nature of illness recognition and reporting, I take it as my foundation that there is a growing crisis in the health of the globe. I do this for two reason: the first because, if there is a crisis happening, then it needs to be solved fast; and the second because there are so many people in my life who are suffering, and if it can be fixed as I believe it can, then we must do whatever possible to alleviate the pain. For some of them it is too late. I am twenty-three, and even at this age I can count the number of my peers who have killed themselves on two hands. I dread to think how many more have attempted it and failed.
And one last very important point before we continue: when I say ‘mental illness’, I am talking mainly about anxiety and depression. The term ‘mental illness’ can cover a huge amount of ground, referring to conditions as wide-ranging as ADHD, schizophrenia and anorexia, and even less pronounced learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyspraxia. Some of these terms are somewhat outside my remit. I am writing to uncover what it is that has made anxiety and depression in particular the ‘illness du jour’. If on the way I find evidence that the factors involved also cause or exacerbate the other illnesses, then that is as may be; but, for now, I’m looking for the primary killer. I want to end the bastard.
The following articles will explain in shorthand the many complex reasons I believe are behind this rise in global misery. I’ve arranged them into short-term factors (those that can be solved in an instant), medium-term factors (which have a slightly deeper cultural origin) and long-term factors, which are based on the cultural foundations of our society and I admit to be more speculative.
More to follow…