By Celine Hedin
Last year fundamentally changed many aspects of life for all of us. Today’s digital world has truly brought out interesting contrasts: in times of physical restrictions, social media and other technical tools have allowed us to move forward with our lives and relationships, although with a digital twist.
Living life from behind a screen has actually been quite manageable, yet it has also shown us that maintaining social relationships from a distance only is not enough. As human beings, we crave real and emotionally intimate interactions with one another, and this need is not met for many with the current state of things. We are growing more and less connected at the same time.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a very special situation and will certainly continue to affect us in the years to come. These challenging times have brought to light new and old problems in our society; one of those being the pressing issue of mental health problems. Quarantine and social isolation are taking a toll on all of us, but perhaps even more so for vulnerable groups of people who do not have a strong support system in place. What can be done about this and why should we care?
First of all, what is a mental health problem? Mayo Clinic defines mental health as the state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time, but these concerns become a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect the ability to function.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by mental, behavioral, neurological and substance use disorders. Some of the most common one’s being depression and anxiety-related disorders, and it is not hard to see how the current situation could trigger an increase in such mental health problems.
Nearly 800,000 people commit suicide in the world every year and it is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15-24 years. It is devastating to think about the unbearable suffering each individual must have gone through, and the pain of the loved ones left behind. Aside from the symptoms and consequences experienced by those involved, mental health problems are also a leading cause of staggering economic and social costs. A mental illness jeopardizes your whole life – it affects how you think, how you feel, how your body functions and can often lead you to be incapable of handling your day-to-day life, including school, work or relationships. It could also lead to physical health problems as sufferers are at a higher risk of turning to alcohol, smoking or drugs to relieve their symptoms. Yet because of stigma or misunderstanding, many do not get the help they need.
When faced with a broken leg injury, very few people would tell you to just ‘get over it’. However, when it comes to mental health problems this attitude is not too unfamiliar. Misunderstanding and lack of education on the subject are hindering people from seeking help. Stigma contributes to fear of how a diagnosis would affect one’s future prospects; both career and relationship-wise. In many cases both others and the sufferer blame him/herself, and rather than seeing it as the medical illness that it is, responsibility is placed on the individual as it is interpreted as a personal weakness. This is unfair. And this narrative needs to stop if we, as a society, are to handle this issue.
Essentially mental health problems arise from the brain. They can arise from both internal and external factors, but more often than not the symptoms and thought-processes they create are out of the individual’s control, or at the very least, very difficult to change on your own.
A reflection of how important mental health is viewed today globally can be seen through how much investment that goes into mental health care. The WHO states that most middle and low-income countries devote less than 1% of their health expenditure to mental health. Consequently, mental health policies, legislation, community care facilities, and treatments for people with mental illness are not given the priority they deserve. Especially now during COVID-19 as essential mental health care services are being interrupted when they are needed the most.
In Sweden I experience that there currently is a “wave” of destigmatization concerning mental health issues. The subject is brought up at schools (although perhaps not enough) and talking about it is becoming more and more normalized – as seen online for example where people are growing more willing to share their stories. A mental illness is already difficult on its own, however being able to share your experiences with others, and feeling accepted despite it, might help to lighten the burden tremendously. I hope that this development can make way in the rest of the world too.
Acknowledging mental health issues is one of the steps we have to take in order to build a better world for tomorrow. It is a scary thing to face alone, especially if it feels like nobody in the world cares. As for now, in times of social isolation and loneliness, compassion is needed more than ever.
Young, old, rich or poor, mental health problems do not discriminate, they could happen to anyone.
By Celine Hedin
Illustration: Mireia Lunquist