The Mental Health Epidemic of Today

Submitted by Richard Yan, Biomedical Engineering Intern

Today’s generation is seeing a higher rate of suicide than ever before. Mental health issues in our society today are more common than that of previous generations. Addiction, anxiety, depression and other disorders are crippling children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly more than imaginable. As a result, the mind is becoming a more popular area of interest amongst mental health researchers and therapists. It is becoming more and more apparent that the things we previously believed did not have influence over our mind, do, in fact, have a profound effect. The mind controls the behaviors that we exhibit in everyday life, and the way we act every day produces ripple effects that influence others whether we are aware of it or not. If the mind is in such a state that can be classified under a mental illness, there can be devastating effects to the individual and to those around them. So, the crucial question that we must ask is: how do we treat such the devastating, yet elusive epidemic we call mental illness?

There are multiple reasons as to why mental illness is such a prevalent issue today. The psychological effects of our everyday habits, our genetic predisposition, and other external traumas contribute much to the mental illness statistic whether we realize it or not. In treating mental health conditions, there must first be a diagnosis. This is not as clear cut as with any other disease as the symptoms for individuals may vary drastically even their condition is classified to be the same. For example, depression and anxiety have many different types and several different symptoms with many of those symptoms overlapping each other. As a result, there are many ways to treat the same type of mental illness and even more ways to treat an individual with multiple mental illnesses.

Western vs. Eastern Medical Philosophies

In traditional Western medicine, health workers use an allopathic methodology to treat the diseased. This way of treatment does not exclude those with mental health issues. In allopathic medicine, practitioners utilize science-based techniques, medication, and/or surgeries to treat or suppress the symptoms of a patient. In terms of mental health, this can be seen in the form of antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication. One of the more popular medications, Prozac or fluoxetine, has been proven to be effective for its serotonin inhibition which stabilizes mood for people with depression and anxiety. There are many more medications that can be prescribed to patients with mental illness issues and most of them work assuming that the patients take them as instructed by a medical professional.

In Eastern medicine, treatments are geared towards behavioral interventions rather than direct medicinal intervention. Some behavioral treatments for people with mental illness such as anxiety or depression include regular meditation, yoga, exercise, and/or a change in diet. For example, Ayurveda is a Hindu system of traditional medicine that literally translates to “knowledge of life” or “the science of life” in Sanskrit. Ayurveda recognizes that all individuals are unique and thus focuses on different versions of the behavioral interventions mentioned earlier to suit each individual. In a sense, the Eastern way of treating mental health and disease in general focuses on treating and healing the entire body as a means of treating an illness due to the strong belief that all things within the body are interconnected.

Both traditional Western and Eastern medicine have been very successful in helping those with mental issues despite their difference in approach. However, an emerging treatment for mental health that is being researched more and more is the use of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). A meta-analysis done by Fuentes and colleagues in January 2020 found that LSD aided significantly in patients suffering from anxiety as well as patients suffering from alcohol addiction. As more research is released for the use of psychedelics within mental health treatment, it is becoming more of a possibility that they may be used alongside traditional Western and Eastern methods of treatment to help those in need.

Positive Steps to Take at Home

Although there is a wide variety of treatments that people with mental illness can seek, there are individual practices that one can incorporate without the need to reach out to a medical professional. The first of those practices would be mindfulness and meditation. A study conducted by Lavretsky et al. showed that practicing Kirtan Kriya or listening to relaxation music for 12 minutes per day for 8 weeks “significantly lowered levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive function.” Another practice that is quite overlooked would be regular exercise. Nowadays, technological advances and the invention of smartphones have most people spending more time behind a screen. Researchers Hrafnkelsdottir and colleagues reported that “less screen time and more frequent vigorous physical activity is associated with lower risk of reporting negative mental health symptoms.” Regular exercise and physical activity can have positive effects on an individual physically and mentally and should be incorporated into one’s daily routine to improve their overall well-being. There is much evidence that supports the benefits of exercise on mental health, so the verdict is clear: mental health and exercise have a positive correlation. Those that exercise are significantly less likely to suffer from a mental health condition.

When it comes to factors that lead to better mental health, the list may seem trivial at first, but these few things can be critical and can change individuals that are suffering from mental health issues for the better. As mentioned before, regular exercise is one of those factors. Moreover, getting quality sleep and a healthier diet are also crucial determinants for better mental health. A group of researchers Van Den Berg et al. found that short-duration and long-duration sleepers were more likely to have depressive disorders than those that were sleeping 7-8 hours per night. Moreover, Eva Selhub at Harvard Medical School notes that 95% of serotonin, known as a mood stabilizer, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract which is lined with bacteria that is influenced by diet. Those that have good bacteria within their gut biome, are less prone to inflammation, more able to absorb the nutrients from their food intake, and less likely to develop depressive symptoms. It seems to be that taking care of the body and providing it with what it needs in terms of diet, exercise and rest can significantly lower the risk of developing mental health issues.

Moving Forward

Though it can be easy to pinpoint the necessary actions that one must take to improve their mental health, it can be much harder for them to execute and carry through with those individual practices. Society can play an important role in raising awareness on the rise of mental illness and spreading information on effective practices that individuals can incorporate into their daily lives. It is crucial that people understand the importance of mental health, its continual rise, and its devastating effects. By spreading and emphasizing this importance, society can promote positive mental health practices with higher efficacy and compliance from individuals.

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