Why Is Mental Health Getting Worse?

More people in the U.S. are living with mental and emotional distress: In 2019, approximately 19.86% of U.S. adults experienced a mental health condition.

Possible reasons why mental health is getting worse include factors like social media use and isolation or loneliness. However, other factors like family history and experiences with other health conditions can play a role too. Here’s what you need to know.

There have been increased instances of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
  • Sleep-wake disorders
  • Substance-related disorders

Some factors can contribute to the development of mental health conditions, such as:

  • Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Biological factors
  • Genetic factors, including family history
  • Brain-based chemical imbalances
  • Experiences from having medical conditions such as cancer or diabetes
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Identity issues
  • Significant life changes, like becoming a parent or losing a job
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs)
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Women’s health concerns, such as infertility, menopause, the postpartum period, and pregnancy

Other factors have also played a role in the increased occurrences of mental health conditions. Read on to learn more.

It’s estimated that 72% of Americans use social media. While social networking platforms have allowed many people to stay in touch with family and friends, research has shown some downsides to social media—especially regarding mental health.

Unhealthy behaviors associated with social media use include:

  • Comparing oneself excessively to others
  • Cyberbullying
  • Experiencing the fear of missing out (FOMO)

Many studies have linked social media use to poorer mental health outcomes—especially among younger people. A systematic review found that excessive time spent using social media was associated with anxiety, depression, negative body image, and psychological distress.

Research has shown that reducing social media use may have the opposite effect. One study found that college students who limited social media use for three weeks showed significantly reduced loneliness and depression compared to those with unlimited use.

Some forms of social media use—particularly Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube—were linked with higher levels of self-reported depressive symptoms, according to a study that surveyed over 5,000 individuals.

The pandemic brought rising numbers of people with mental health concerns.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggested that the rate of serious psychological distress (SPD) among U.S. adults consistently ran between 3% and 4%—more than 8 million Americans. Globally, anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic.

In the U.S. alone, one in five adults reported that the pandemic significantly negatively impacted their mental health. Among them—and one of the top factors—was the social isolation people endured during the pandemic. Social isolation alone was found to have significant negative consequences on psychological well-being.

Being unable to work, lacking support from loved ones, and engaging socially less often were linked to social isolation. Other stressors during the pandemic included:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Fear of infection
  • Financial worries

Isolation can also cause loneliness, related to various physical and mental conditions, including depression and anxiety.

The pandemic exacerbated isolation that a study reported was already increasing in the general population. That isolation was due to societal trends like decreased community involvement and fewer people getting married and having children.

Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness as they are more likely to face challenges such as:

Additionally, social isolation in older adults is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While many studies and information are on older adults and loneliness, young adults can struggle with loneliness. One study stated that young adults ages 16 to 24 were the loneliest group in Western countries—even lonelier than older adults. This was the case before the pandemic, noted the researchers, who also linked the prevalence of loneliness in this group partly to social media use.

Immigrant and LGBTQ+ populations are also at higher risk of experiencing loneliness.

In addition to an increase in the need for psychiatric care with the rise in mental health conditions, getting that care can be difficult. Over half of individuals with a mental health condition do not receive treatment.

Approximately 11% of adults and youth with mental illness are uninsured. This data is despite people having more access to affordable healthcare via the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Over 25 million rural Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. Even if they have the means to talk to a professional, one might not be available. In other words, people may have insurance that covers mental health services, but it cancels the insurance benefits if those services are unavailable.

If you need help with your mental health, reaching out to a healthcare provider is a good place to start. They can give you information on resources in your area and provide a referral to a mental health professional if necessary. Additionally, there are self-care practices that may be beneficial for your mental health.

General Mental Health Resources

You can check out the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services mental health website for phone numbers and service locators for assistance directing you to the help you need. Further, you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to get referrals to:

  • Local treatment centers
  • Support groups
  • Other community-based organizations

Therapy Resources

Online therapy services, which are becoming increasingly common, are desirable if you need services at a reduced price or want a convenient way to receive care.

Keep in mind, however, that online services may not be the best option if you’re dealing with a complex psychiatric disorder. You can still seek in-person therapy services from private providers or community clinics. Additionally, community clinics may offer mental health services on an income-based sliding fee scale if you don’t have insurance.

There are several ways to find a culturally competent provider or one trained to serve your unique cultural needs. Health previously reported that digital mental health sites, such as Hurdle and Ayana Therapy, are aimed at diverse communities and offer a culturally responsive approach.

Some resources, like Mental Health America (MHA), also allow you to narrow your search for a therapist by applying specific characteristics, such as language and sexuality.

Self-Care Practices

Some mental health risk factors may be out of a person’s control, like biological factors or family history. However, there are ways to ensure you care for yourself and improve your mental health. They include:

  • Developing coping skills and a sense of meaning and purpose in life
  • Doing relaxing activities
  • Eating healthy
  • Focusing on positivity
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Prioritizing quality sleep
  • Setting goals and priorities for responsibilities
  • Staying hydrated
  • Staying socially connected with others

Caring for your mental health is as important as ever, especially with the many factors contributing to the rise in mental health conditions worldwide. That said, if you have any concerns about your mental health or well-being, don’t hesitate to seek help. If you have difficulty finding the right resources, ask a trusted friend or family member to help you—the more support, the better.

Mental health disorders have risen in the United States. The increase is due to the rise in social media, the COVID-19 pandemic, and societal trends that have resulted in smaller family units and less community involvement.

The mental health crisis, particularly acute for older people and the youngest adults, is compounded because people lack health insurance or access to a healthcare provider, depending on where they live. There are options if you need help with your mental health, from more affordable online services to community clinics to mental health websites that can direct you to more information.


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