New Study: 1 in 2 People Worldwide Will Develop a Mental Illness

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Half of the world’s population will develop at least one mental health condition by the age of 75. That was the conclusion by scientists at Harvard Medical School and the University of Queensland, in the first major international study of its kind in years. The new findings, released in July, draw a much bleaker picture of the global state of mental health than previous statistics.

What method did the researchers use to carry out their study? What, if any, insights were they able to draw about the most common mental health disorders worldwide? What makes these latest findings about the global state of mental health so alarming, and how might they inform public health initiatives to encourage mental health and combat mental illness?

How Did Researchers Reach This Conclusion?

They reached this conclusion after collecting data from surveys of 150,000 people from a large, socioeconomically diverse group of 29 countries. The surveys were “structured, face-to-face” interviews, according to a July 23 release from Queensland Brain Institute. The researchers collected the data from these surveys between the years 2001 and 2022, as part of the World Health Organization’s “World Mental Health Survey Initiative.”

What Makes These New Findings Alarming?

Before the publication of these latest findings in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, there have been differing estimates regarding the global prevalence of mental illness. For example, one in eight people were living with a mental health disorder in 2019, according to a 2022 report from the World Health Organization. It also noted a 26-28 percent increase in anxiety and mood disorders the next year, due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, an earlier study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2014, claimed mental illness affected one in five people worldwide. It based its claim on a systematic review of 174 studies across more than 63 countries.

If the latest study’s conclusion is true, it means that in less than 10 years there has been a substantial, accelerated increase in rates of mental illness worldwide.

More Insights into Most Prevalent Mental Health Disorders?

Anxiety and mood disorders continue to be the most prevalent mental health issues, according to this study. It also found some gender differences between which conditions most commonly affect men versus women. For women, depression, specific phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder were the top three most commonly occurring. For men, alcohol use disorders, depression, and specific phobia were the top three most common mental health disorders.

What Are the Public Health Implications of These Findings?

These findings call for an urgent public health response to stem the rapidly rising tide of mental illness worldwide. What might that look like?

Triaging and treating mental illness is already straining the global health system beyond capacity. When there is evidence to suggest that the most common mental health conditions—anxiety, depression, and substance use—can be prevented, more needs to be done on this front.

Catching signs and symptoms early, and ideally before the onset of a first episode— (typically in the teen and young adult years)—is vital. This will require more aggressive mental health education and information campaigns targeting families and children at an early age.

At the same time, more resources are needed to encourage creative solutions to the massive shortage in mental health workers worldwide.

If these findings by Harvard Medical School and the University of Queensland are a wake-up call, they are also a welcome reminder that mental health should matter to everyone.

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