America’s Unhealthy Obsession with Mental Health

Americans are increasingly concerned about mental health. In recent decades, there has been a push for people to think and talk more about their psychological vulnerabilities and struggles. While this approach has yielded some positive results, it is also contributing to the very problem it seeks to solve. As we become increasingly fixated on reducing psychological distress, we are witnessing a paradoxical decline in mental wellbeing. This presents a challenge: How can we support people suffering from mental illness without perpetuating a culture obsessed with mental health?

A New Crisis: How Poor Mental Health Is Threatening Individual and Societal Flourishing

Surveys reveal concerning trends regarding the current state of mental health in America. The number of Americans receiving mental health treatment has more than doubled in just two decades, increasing from 27 million in 2002 to almost 56 million in 2022. This alarming trend is further supported by the observations of U.S. physicians, with over half reporting a decline in their patients’ mental wellbeing. Employers are also taking notice, with 77 percent of companies reporting increasing mental health issues among their workforce. Moreover, individuals with mental illness make up an increasing portion of Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries, surpassing those unable to work due to injuries, cancer, or other physical ailments combined.

A closer examination of these trends reveals that the mental health crisis is disproportionately affecting younger generations. A 2022 KFF/CNN survey found that adults under the age of 30 are significantly more likely to report that they often or always feel depressed or anxious compared to older age groups. This crisis is not merely a temporary anomaly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, research identified a significant increase in anxiety between 2008 and 2018, with the most substantial rise observed among adults aged 18 to 25.

Poor mental health is, of course, a barrier to individual flourishing. It is difficult for people to find contentment and reach their full potential when they are struggling with depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues. However, poor mental health is also a barrier to societal flourishing and human progress. To put it in financial terms, mental illness reduces labor force participation and productivity, costing the economy nearly $50 billion annually in lost productivity.

As the economist Julian Simon argued, human minds are the ultimate resource. Our advanced cognitive capacities distinguish us as a species that explores, investigates, discovers, collaborates, creates, and innovates. In essence, human progress is fueled by the ingenuity and efforts of people. However, when individuals suffer from mental health issues, they are not well-equipped to harness their cognitive abilities to drive progress. For example, research indicates that increased levels of anxiety are associated with a lower likelihood of engaging in entrepreneurial activities. Furthermore, poor mental health erodes social trust, which is crucial for nurturing innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. Additionally, the human capacity to envision a desired future and work towards realizing that vision is a fundamental aspect of human progress that hinges on a hopeful mindset. However, poor mental health, especially depression, is characterized by a pervasive lack of hope. Indeed, our research at the Archbridge Institute’s Human Flourishing Lab found that mental health is a strong predictor of hope; Americans who reported good mental health were significantly more likely to feel hopeful about their own future, as well as the future of their families, communities, nation, and the prospects for human progress.

Mental Health Awareness: A Solution with Unintended Consequences

Considering the extensive damage caused by the ongoing mental health crisis to both individuals and society, it seems wise to encourage more public dialogue about mental wellbeing and urge Americans to spend more time focused on their own psychological health. In fact, a substantial portion of the American population is deeply concerned about the current state of mental health in the nation. A 2022 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that 79 percent of Americans view mental health as a public health emergency in the United States. Another survey found that 90 percent of Americans believe mental health problems in our nation have reached crisis level. When asked about crucial issues for 2024 presidential candidates to discuss, a larger share of Americans (70 percent) indicated that access to mental health care is a very important topic, compared to other major issues such as immigration (65 percent), gun violence (65 percent), abortion (52 percent), and climate change (48 percent).

Undoubtedly, there are advantages to raising mental health awareness. As an example, stigma has been recognized as a significant factor that discourages many individuals grappling with mental illness from seeking mental health services. When society fosters a more open and understanding environment around mental health, those in need are more comfortable seeking the assistance they require to lead mentally healthier lives.

However, the consequences of heightened mental health awareness are not entirely positive. The more we make mental health a subject of public fixation, the more we inadvertently encourage individuals to perceive themselves as mentally unwell, paradoxically rendering them more susceptible to psychological struggles. To understand this seeming contradiction, it is beneficial to first understand the idea of concept creep – the gradual broadening of the meaning of harm-related concepts. In the realm of mental illness, this implies that negative emotional experiences (e.g., nervousness) once regarded as a typical part of life are progressively being interpreted as indicators of psychological illness (e.g., anxiety disorder).

Building upon this idea, the prevalence inflation hypothesis suggests that escalating efforts to raise public awareness of mental health problems in the Western world are inadvertently contributing to the increasing rates of these issues by encouraging people to obsess over their negative psychological experiences and misinterpret normal levels of emotional discomfort as abnormal. This misinterpretation can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which individuals start to think and act as if they truly have a mental disorder, ultimately elevating their likelihood of developing one.

When individuals start to label their normal emotional experiences as pathological, they risk becoming hypervigilant to any signs of discomfort, which can amplify the very symptoms they are trying to avoid. For example, anxiety is a normal part of life and most individuals who experience apprehension, self-doubts, and even fear do not have and will not develop an anxiety disorder. In fact, normal levels of anxiety serve to focus attention and motivate goal-directed action. For instance, feeling anxious about an upcoming test or job interview encourages preparation for those challenges. However, labeling that anxiety as indicative of an anxiety disorder, as opposed to a normal and perhaps even helpful emotional experience, can lead to a self-reinforcing feedback loop, where the fear of anxiety itself becomes a source of anxiety, ultimately exacerbating the problem. Put simply, how we conceptualize our emotional states is important. Studies find that people who believe negative emotions are inappropriate or harmful are more likely to experience psychological problems.

In addition, well-meaning efforts to encourage people to think and talk more about mental health may unintentionally foster excessive rumination on negative emotions and personal insecurities, which can also worsen psychological distress. Rumination contributes to the development and exacerbation of depression and anxiety disorders. This is one reason why mental health interventions that encourage people to spend more time helping others are particularly effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression – they shift people’s focus away from their own troubles, thereby breaking the cycle of negative self-preoccupation.

While anyone can lend a sympathetic ear and offer encouragement to those experiencing psychological distress, most are not trained psychologists or psychiatrists and thus lack the expertise required to properly identify and treat mental illness. Many also probably have inaccurate beliefs that influence how they think and talk about mental illness. According to one survey, 44 percent of Americans admit to having informally diagnosed themselves or others with mental health conditions, relying not on professional expertise but on a combination of questionable sources, including comparisons with people they believe to have mental health issues, information gathered from internet searches, advice from social media, and portrayals of mental illness in television shows and movies. This is likely contributing to the spreading of mental health misinformation. Research has indeed found that individuals who rely on social media for information about anxiety tend to have less accurate knowledge about anxiety disorders, likely because they are exposed to scientifically unsupported advice from unreliable sources.

A New Prescription: Less Self-Focused Talk, More Outward-Focused Action

Promoting cultural messages that encourage heightened sensitivity to mental health vulnerabilities might seem like a good strategy for combating our nation’s escalating mental health issues. However, this approach might inadvertently cause more harm than good. This is not to say that we should ignore the growing mental health challenges we face as a society, but rather that we must reevaluate our current approach. We need to find ways to support the foundations of good mental health while avoiding making it a topic of unhealthy preoccupation.

Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of research that provides valuable insights into strategies for fostering a culture that promotes mental health without becoming preoccupied with mental health. For example, physical exercise has emerged as one of the most effective activities for enhancing mood and managing stress. A systematic review of research has revealed that engaging in physical activity offers psychological benefits for both the general population and those diagnosed with psychological disorders, and may even surpass the effectiveness of therapy or medication in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Social exercise is also crucial. Humans have a fundamental need to belong. Social interaction is good for our emotional wellbeing, and we gain the greatest psychological benefits from social engagement when we are endeavoring to improve other people’s lives. Indeed, research indicates that performing acts of kindness towards others not only boosts psychological wellbeing but also alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Ultimately, meaning in life is foundational to psychological health. Meaning acts as a buffer against depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-harm. In the face of adversity, people who possess a robust sense of meaning demonstrate greater emotional resilience and are better able to navigate life’s challenges in a healthy and constructive way. This is because meaning has great self-regulatory and motivational power. It inspires hope, confidence, and the determination to be healthy, productive, and achieve life goals. Importantly, meaning is found more through active engagement than through introspection. Individuals experience the most profound sense of meaning when they are striving to reach their full potential and positively impact the world.

More broadly, engaging in activities that shift one’s attention away from personal insecurities and worries, and instead direct it towards making meaningful progress on personal, family, social, and professional goals that enrich both their own lives and the lives of others, lays the groundwork for robust mental health.

The progress made in destigmatizing mental illness should not be overlooked, as there are individuals who suffer from serious psychiatric conditions and require both treatment and social support. It is indeed a positive development that those experiencing such challenges feel more comfortable seeking professional help and discussing their struggles with family, friends, and colleagues. Furthermore, we should continue to work towards removing barriers to accessing mental health services. We need to cultivate a culture that is good for mental health but not obsessed with it.

Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge
Clay Routledge is the Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute. He is also co-editor of Profectus, an online magazine dedicated to human progress and flourishing. As a leading expert in existential psychology, Clay’s work focuses on helping people reach their full potential and build meaningful lives. Clay is a highly cited researcher who has published more than 100 scholarly papers, co-edited three academic books, authored three books, and received numerous awards for his research and mentorship. As a public intellectual, Clay has authored dozens of articles for popular outlets, and his work has been covered by numerous newspapers, television and radio shows, podcasts, and documentary programs. His newest book, Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, was published in 2023.
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