Rising Mental Illness and What We Can Do About It
A Disturbing Trend
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Forbes Health, and many other reputable sources, mental illness is currently on the rise both globally and in the US – with depression, anxiety, suicidality, and trauma being the most prominent types of disorders.
The WHO states that “there has been a 13% rise in mental health conditions in the last decade.” NAMI writes that “1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness each year” as well as “1 in 6 US youth aged 6-17.” All three organizations mentioned above agree that suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens. While it is possible that this surge is due, in part, to the concurrent increase in diagnoses being given out, it is general public consensus that all of these problems are getting worse.
Many researchers say that the current rise in mental illness is a direct result of the Covid pandemic, the fallout from which we are still experiencing, recovering from, and trying to understand fully. Others state that social media is a considerable factor, especially among teens and young adults. Of course, there are other influences contributing to this shift as well: the rapidly changing technological, geopolitical, economic, environmental, and social landscapes we are all living through. It is impossible to determine precisely what has caused this rise in mental illness today, however, I am certain that all of these issues and more – including lack of self-awareness – play a role.
The Holiday Slump
To make matters worse, it is common knowledge among practitioners in the mental health industry that mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, tends to be exacerbated during the holiday season (i.e. November, December, and January). While I don’t know for sure, my sense is that this intensification during the Fall and Winter is due to a combination of things: the time change and the shorter days with less sunlight, increased (or decreased) family time that activates unresolved wounds or issues, setting expectations, making comparisons, traveling, and falling out of normal routines, among other variables.
Reversing the Trend
The good news in all of this is that the concept of mental health is becoming more popular and mainstream, and the mental health field is slowly gaining more credibility. There has been a significant uptick in individuals seeking and obtaining therapeutic services over the last few years, as well as a growing number of practitioners meeting the demand. It seems that whatever stigma has followed psychotherapy through the years is being overpowered by peoples’ needs. This does not solve the issue, but it is a positive step forward.
This brings me to the question: what can we do about the rise in mental illness, both in general and during the holidays? Fortunately, there are many things each of us can do to stave off, diminish, and heal from mental illness when we see it. If you or someone you know is experiencing this, please consider the following ten tips, which, in my professional opinion, although not exhaustive by any means, are the most important and easily overlooked places to start.
10 Tips for Reducing Mental Dis-ease:
- Communicate. One of the most essential components of healing is sharing what is going on. This can look a number of ways: asking for help, journaling, reaching out to your loved ones for support, finding a therapist, and more. Communicating about what you are feeling with even one person who you trust, and who won’t judge or invalidate you, can do a lot to alleviate tension. And sometimes just naming or acknowledging the problem is enough to bring clarity and change.
- Create solitude. Isolation can also be a great gift. If you find yourself struggling when around others and drained after a social gathering, you may want to carve out some alone time to recharge. While humans are social animals, it is sensible to balance this with being alone. And this includes limiting your exposure to social media and media in general, if possible. Without the endless feed of information, you have a greater chance of being able to self-regulate and recalibrate. It will also free up space in your day to spend on other, potentially more wholesome activities. You may be surprised by how refreshing solitude is mentally and physically.
- Set boundaries. It’s incredibly important to create and maintain boundaries when you anticipate being pushed beyond your capacity. This can be difficult especially if you experience high levels of shame, guilt, or fear, but if you are able to stand up for yourself and explain your needs confidently and kindly to those you fear disappointing, then you will notice the positive effects that arise from being authentic, and others will respect and admire you for it. There is no shame in knowing your limitations and advocating for yourself. If done properly, setting boundaries is an act of self-love, which benefits everyone involved.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle. The daily routine that we adopt has a powerful impact on our mental health. Although we all generally understand what it means to sustain a healthy lifestyle, I feel that this discussion would not be complete without a few reminders: balance rest with activity, get regular exercise, get enough sleep, receive adequate sunlight, have fun, surround yourself with positive influences, and eat a diet that works with your constitution.
- Determine what you can control and what you can’t control, and act accordingly. When you are faced with an experience that causes distress, ask yourself which category it falls under and be honest with yourself. If your issue is within your power to change and you find it necessary to do so, then by all means, go for it as long as nobody gets hurt in the process. But if you find that it is not within your power to influence, then let it go with graceful acceptance.
- Be present. Oftentimes we get lost in our heads, either stuck in the past or fixated on the future, neither of which do us any good. The past is gone and can never return, the future isn’t here yet and will always be unknowable. So don’t waste any time dwelling there. Learn from the past and move on. Plan for the future and move on. This moment is the only thing that’s real. Be here now.
- Stay neutral and open to all possibilities. There are few things more depressing than having high expectations and then being disappointed, or having low expectations and then not being able to appreciate when good things happen. How about having no expectations at all? Our minds can run wild with fantasies and expectations about the future, and this is to protect us from fear of the unknown. But the truth is that the mind cannot predict the future, so it is pointless to even try. When anticipating a future event, staying mentally open to all possibilities and not setting expectations is the safest, healthiest, and most reasonable stance.
- Refrain from making comparisons. It is human nature to want to compare our situation with those of others. However, from a logical perspective, this is both futile and illusory. You never truly know what someone’s life is like below the surface. People show you what they want you to see, and unless you are omniscient you will never have all the information, so it will never be a fair comparison. Nobody in history has ever had a perfect life, and certainly no one has the same life experience, set of circumstances, or situation as you. Thus, making comparisons between your life and others’ is like comparing apples to oranges. It can never be done accurately.
- Discern true thoughts from false thoughts, and helpful thoughts from detrimental thoughts. If you haven’t already noticed, it is very difficult to control your thoughts or your level of mental activity, nor would I advise doing so as I have found it to be a losing battle. Instead, I recommend learning how to relate to your thoughts, how to discriminate between helpful true thoughts and detrimental false ones, and how to act in your own best interest despite having the impulses to do otherwise. This requires a good deal of self-awareness, but if you spend some time noticing the content of your thoughts, you will see that not every thought you have is true or helpful. Bring the light of consciousness to your mental narratives and stop taking them for granted and assuming they are telling you the truth about yourself or others! Once you figure out which thoughts are true or false, you can then decide whether to believe them or not. For many, this kind of exercise can be revelatory and liberating.
- Realize that you are not your thoughts or your feelings, you are the one who experiences them. Consider how many thoughts and feelings you have every day. They are constantly changing in an endless and unpredictable stream. It seems that we don’t even have much say in the matter. But if you understand that your thoughts and feelings aren’t who you are, then you are free from whatever suffering they may cause. Remember, thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings. They come and go. Let them pass. They have no inherent meaning except for the meaning you give them. If you see your thoughts and feelings in this way, then you become psychologically flexible and resilient, and ultimately impervious to mental illness.
These simple but profound acts outlined above will do wonders for your mental health if put into practice. Although this is easier said than done, through self-awareness, mental discipline, and a resolve to change, it is absolutely possible. Unless one’s mental illness is caused solely by genetic or biological factors, then it is always a result of one’s inability to tolerate painful situations. If we are unaware and uneducated about our internal workings (i.e. the psyche), then there is no hope for overcoming our suffering, save for doing what we can to control our outer circumstances, which in the grand scheme of things is very little. In other words, if we are faced with a situation that we can’t control, and we don’t understand how to manage our inner environment, then we are lost. Therefore, the most surefire way to beat mental illness – and reverse the trend gripping the nation and wreaking havoc in our communities – is to tackle it from both sides: do what we can to make our external situation better and at the same time gain awareness and control of our inner life. In this way, we are optimally prepared for any difficult situation that comes our way. What’s more, exploring and truly understanding our inner world inevitably leads to more compassion, greater confidence, and deeper fulfillment in all aspects of life.
Resources for Further Reading
- The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
- Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, The Revolutionary Process Called “The Work” by Byron Katie
- Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty… And Start Speaking up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, and Unapologetically Being Yourself by Dr. Aziz Gazipura
- The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle