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  • Julian Talbot

At the risk of sounding anxious

What would you expect to see at a macro level in our societies if anxiety and depression increased significantly?

Probably greater social divides, civil unrest, falling productivity, economic challenges, political extremism, rising populism, and higher healthcare costs. But that would surely make the human condition of anxiety a global risk worthy of our attention.

An epidemic of anxiety?

According to an article in the National Education Association, written in 2018 before COVID, in Marty Davis' Utah kindergarten classroom, even children as young as four years old experience anxiety due to high expectations. By high school and college, many students have become overwhelmed by anxiety, which has become a mental-health crisis among their generation.

A Pew survey found that 70% of teens consider anxiety and depression a "major problem" among their peers, and an additional 26% consider it a minor problem. School counselor Kathy Reamy at La Plata High School in Maryland has seen an increase in the number of students hospitalized for mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and the pressure to fit in and achieve in today's society.

Anxiety is not a new phenomenon. It had been recognized as a serious illness by late 20th-century psychiatry and can affect between 10% and 30% of the population at any given time. It has been written about by many authors and philosophers throughout history, including Freud, Kierkegaard, and Spinoza.

It is worth noting that anxiety is a normal and adaptive response to stress. It only becomes a disorder when it is severe and persistent and interferes with a person's daily functioning.

If you are concerned about your own levels of anxiety or that of someone you know, it is essential to seek help from a mental health professional.

Anxiety disorders affect 18% of the population in the US and can significantly impact a person's ability to live a normal life. Symptoms can include panic attacks, feelings of impending doom, restlessness, nausea, and difficulty sleeping. These symptoms can create a debilitating vicious cycle, with the lack of sleep making it harder for a person to cope with their anxiety and vice versa.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental disorders, including anxiety and depression, are common worldwide and affect around 1 in 8 people globally. In 2019, approximately 970 million people were living with a mental disorder, anxiety and depression being the most common. Mental disorders can cause significant distress and impairment in daily functioning, and many people with mental disorders cannot access effective care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in anxiety and depression, with initial estimates showing a 26% and 28% increase, respectively, in just one year. There is some good news, however. A recent survey by the Office of National Statistics showed that anxiety levels in Britain had dropped by almost 1%, but 20.9% of people still rated their anxiety levels as six or higher out of 10.

It is surprisingly difficult to say whether there is a recent "epidemic" of anxiety on a global scale. We don't know how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced long-term anxiety trends. And, of course, the prevalence of anxiety disorders varies widely depending on the demographics, the population being studied, and the specific definitions and criteria used to diagnose anxiety disorders.

We do, however, know that the prevalence of anxiety disorders has increased in recent years, with anxiety now rivaling depression as the most common mental health disorder among university students. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 38% of teenage girls and 26% of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.

Why is it so?

One reason for the increase in mental illness in the 21st century appears to be a growing dissatisfaction and disillusionment many people feel in their jobs and society. This, of course, might be confusing the direction of the arrow of causation, and it is perhaps likely to be a negative feedback loop.

The belief in progress has raised expectations for life satisfaction, and the reality of modern society can often fall short of these expectations. Some reasons for the high rates of mental illness might include overdiagnosis, the influence of pharmaceutical companies, and the increasing expectations and disappointments of modern society.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans dislike their jobs or have lost motivation. Many feel alienated, isolated, and disconnected, and the pressure to conform and succeed can be overwhelming.

Some people rebel against societal pressures through mental illness, consciously or subconsciously. They may feel unable to escape from oppressive situations or make meaningful change through political activism, and mental illness might become a way of expressing frustration and discontent. Many people feel isolated and oppressed by societal demands and may rebel by exhibiting behaviors labeled as mental illness.

Such cases are likely to be in the minority, however, and most reported cases of anxiety involve a range of symptoms, many of which can be truly debilitating. Many of those diagnosed with mental illness are ashamed of their inefficiency and try to fit in but may struggle and become anxious, depressed, and dysfunctional.

The use of technology, mainly social media and constant communication through texting, has been suggested as a contributing factor to the increase in anxiety among teens and young adults. In a 2014 study, it was found that the heaviest smartphone users showed an increase in anxiety when deprived of their phone, while those who used their phone less did not show any change in anxiety.

If there truly is a recent increase in anxiety and depression, as it would seem, there are several reasons why this may be the case. Some possible contributing factors include:

  1. Increased stress and uncertainty: The modern world can be very stressful and uncertain, and many people face various challenges and demands that can contribute to anxiety. This may include work-related stress, financial pressures, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  2. Technology: Smartphones and other technologies might contribute to anxiety by increasing the amount of information and stimuli people are exposed to, leading to a constant state of arousal.

  3. Modern life: Our fast-paced modern society may contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression in some individuals. The constant influx of information and stimuli from media, technology, and social connections can be overwhelming and can distort our perception of reality.

  4. Social and cultural factors: Society and culture can also play a role in the prevalence of anxiety. For example, some people may feel pressure to conform to certain norms or expectations or always be "on" and connected, which can contribute to anxiety.

  5. Changes in the brain: Anxiety can also be caused by changes in the brain, such as imbalances in neurotransmitter levels or changes in the structure or function of brain regions. These changes can be influenced by genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

  6. Medical conditions: Anxiety can also be a symptom of medical conditions, such as thyroid disorders, heart disease, or chronic pain. In these cases, treating the underlying condition can help to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Overall, the prevalence of anxiety is likely due to a combination of factors, and addressing these underlying causes can help reduce anxiety's prevalence.

The societal issues

The rise of social disorder and populism, as well as falling productivity, may be related to feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment in society. Various factors, including economic challenges, political conflicts, social inequality, and other complex issues may cause these feelings.

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can also be caused by these social, economic, and political challenges and contribute to the rise of populism and social disorder. For example, individuals facing economic insecurity or social marginalization may be more prone to anxiety and depression, and these mental health issues may make them more vulnerable to the appeal of populist leaders and ideas.

At the same time, the rise of populism and social disorder may also contribute to dissatisfaction and disillusionment in society, as these phenomena can create uncertainty and insecurity, leading to increased anxiety and depression. It is essential to recognize the complex interplay between mental health issues, social and economic conditions, and political events and to address these issues holistically and comprehensively.

The consequences of populism as a social pathology are harmful to the health and vitality of democratic systems and can have detrimental effects on the lives and freedoms of individuals.

Populism is considered a social pathology by some scholars because it undermines people's capacity to conduct a free life. This is because the way that populism understands political freedom, as the immediate expression of the authentic identity and will of "the People" without the need for mediating vehicles, can lead to various forms of political unfreedom.

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression may also play a role in the appeal of populism. Individuals facing these challenges may be more vulnerable to the promises of simplistic solutions and strong, charismatic leaders who claim to represent the people's will. However, it is essential to note that mental health issues alone do not cause populism and that other factors, such as social, political, and economic conditions, also play a role.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, it is important to be mindful of our media intake and technology use and to practice self-care and mindfulness to maintain mental well-being. It is also important to remember that not everyone is affected in the same way by these factors and that there are many other contributing factors to anxiety and depression.

There are several steps that individuals can take to manage anxiety and depression. Some possible strategies include:

  1. Seeking professional help: If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, it is important to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. A therapist or counselor can help you to identify the underlying causes of your anxiety and depression and develop a treatment plan to address your symptoms.

  2. Engaging in regular physical activity: Regular physical activity can help to improve mood and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. This can include walking, running, swimming, or dancing.

  3. Adopting a healthy diet: A healthy diet can also help to improve mood and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. This may involve eating a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and avoiding processed foods, sugar, and caffeine.

  4. Getting enough sleep: Adequate sleep is also important for managing anxiety and depression. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and avoid caffeine, alcohol, and electronic devices before bedtime.

  5. Connecting with others: Social support is essential for managing anxiety and depression. Connecting with friends, family, or support groups can provide a sense of belonging, support, and connection, which can help to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A significant global risk

We are facing many risks, including geostrategic instability and climate change, which cannot be ignored.

At a global level, the burden of anxiety disorders on individuals, families, and societies can be significant in terms of the direct costs of treatment and the indirect costs of lost productivity and missed opportunities.

It is possible that the rise of social disorder and populism, as well as falling productivity, may be related to feelings of dissatisfaction and disillusionment in society. Various factors, including economic challenges, political conflicts, social inequality, and other complex issues, may cause and be, in turn, caused by mental health issues.

Addressing the root causes of these issues to promote social stability and improve productivity may involve addressing economic and social inequalities, improving communication and dialogue among different groups, and addressing individuals' and communities' underlying concerns and needs.

Governments in most nations are already working to address mental health issues. By bringing additional resources to bear on these issues, it may be possible to improve social cohesion and outcomes for individuals and societies. This could involve implementing strategies to promote well-being and addressing potential contributing factors, such as the impact of technology on mental health.

If a global increase in mental health disorders reduces social cohesion, then improving mental health may be critical in addressing one of the root causes of geostrategic instability. And perhaps also our lack of collective will to address climate change. Should mental health issues be a strategic priority for governments and organizations worldwide? Or is anxiety just a part of being human? What do you think?


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