Why is our mental health getting worse?
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It seems that there is a surge in numbers of those struggling with poor mental health, but why, asks mental wellbeing expert Philippa Saunders
For the last few years there has been increasing national anxiety about our worsening mental health. This was even before the Covid-19 pandemic challenged people in unparalleled ways; referrals for specialist mental health care reached a record high in England by the end of 2021. Studies show that we are less and less happy and, according to a World Happiness Report, people in high income countries have become more unhappy over the past ten years or so. Surveys also show that more young people than ever are reporting mental distress.
How do we explain it at a time when interest in mental health is at an all-time high? What is going on? While there is no short answer, we can identify contributory factors:
Culture and society
Talking about mental illnesses has become less taboo, especially among young people who are much more open and honest about their mental health. More people than ever are seeking help and research suggests a good proportion of the rise in referrals is down to this.
Modern western lifestyles undermine mental health. Unhealthy diets, lack of physical exercise, competition and pressure in education and the workplace and loneliness all factor in. Unfortunately, the way we live is often not conducive to mental wellbeing.
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Smartphones and social media
We turn to our smartphones for a quick hit of dopamine - a ‘feel good chemical’ linked to pleasurable activities such as social interaction, sex and food. Constantly ‘interrupting ourselves’ reaching for a quick digital hit means we’re struggling to be alone with our thoughts and to concentrate on difficult tasks. Every spare second is an opportunity to be stimulated, whether it be scrolling on Instagram, swiping through dating apps or online shopping. Behavioural, as opposed to substance addictions, have soared over the past twenty years.
Despite all the fun at our fingertips, social media has been shown to be a cause of unhappiness, and can lead to the development of anxiety and depression when used too much or without caution. Although we might experience a dopamine hit when we reach for our phone, the effect is short lived and afterwards we experience more of a dopamine dip.
How can we help curb our dopamine addiction?
Activities that require effort and then give you pleasure help build more substantial bubbles of dopamine in the brain, without the dip afterwards. Music, human connection, reading, focusing on a difficult task, cleaning, cooking, breaks from technology, cold showers, podcasts are all examples of activities that can help you build these dopamine bubbles.
Activities that give you pleasure immediately with no effort burst these bubbles (more of the dopamine dip). If you constantly burst these bubbles and don’t build them, it is predictable that you will feel low, worried, and distracted. Looking at your phone first thing, online shopping, notifications on your phone, social media, alcohol, gambling, constantly checking the news, and pornography are all examples of activities that burst dopamine bubbles.
In our modern day lives, we inevitably do a lot of the ‘bursting’ activities, so we need to add as many of the ‘building’ activities into our lives as possible, to make a positive impact on our mental wellbeing. By starting to focus on our mental wellbeing in a proactive way, we can learn to manage our thoughts and emotions, build our self-esteem, strengthen our coping skills and develop a powerful mindset. These are all skills that we can develop with the right help.