Mental Illness Is on the Rise

Millions in the United States are affected by mental health conditions each year. Learn why.

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More people in the United States are living with mental and emotional distress than ever before, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2019, approximately 19.86% of adults in the United States experienced a mental illness, according to Mental Health America (MHA). That's around 50 million people. Data collected by the MHA also shows that depression is on the rise in youngsters as well.

What might be causing this increase in mental health issues? Let's take a look.

Social Media Use

It's estimated that 72% of Americans use social media, according to the Pew Research Center. While social networking platforms have allowed many people to stay in touch with family and friends, research is showing that there are some downsides to social media—especially as it relates to mental health. Unhealthy behaviors associated with social media use include comparing oneself excessively to others and experiencing the fear of missing out (FOMO), per MHA.

That said, many studies have linked social media use to poorer mental health outcomes—especially among younger people. A 2019 systematic review published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth found that excessive time spent using social media was associated with depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.

Research has shown that reducing social media use may have the opposite effect. A 2018 University of Pennsylvania study published in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that college students who limited social media use for three weeks showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression compared to those who had unlimited use.

Some forms of social media use—particularly Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube—were linked with higher levels of self-reported depressive symptoms, according to a 2021 study published in JAMA, which surveyed over 5,000 individuals.

COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has also brought rising numbers of people with mental health concerns.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research suggested that the rate of serious psychological distress (SPD) among U.S. adults consistently ran between 3% and 4%—more than 8 million Americans—according to a study published in 2022 in JAMA Network Open. The WHO says that globally, anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic.

In the U.S. alone, 1 in 5 adults reported that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA). Among them—and one of the top factors—was the social isolation people endured during the pandemic. Social isolation alone was found to have significant negative consequences on psychological wellbeing, according to research published in 2021 in the journal Nature.

Linked to the social isolation, said the WHO, were the "constraints on people's ability to work, seek support from loved ones, and engage in their communities." Other stressors during the pandemic included fear of infection, death of a loved one, and financial worries, per the WHO.

Isolation and Loneliness

Isolation can also cause loneliness, and loneliness is related to a host of both physical and mental conditions, including depression and anxiety, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The pandemic exacerbated isolation that a 2017 study in Public Policy & Aging Report reported was already increasing in the general population due to societal trends like decreased community involvement and fewer people getting married and having children.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older persons are at increased risk for loneliness as they are more likely to face challenges such as living alone, losing loved ones, and coping with chronic illness. Further, social isolation in older adults is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

And while a lot of studies and information are on older adults and loneliness, young adults can struggle with loneliness, too. For example, a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology stated that young adults ages 16 to 24 were the loneliest group in Western countries—even more lonely than older adults. This was the case before the pandemic, noted the researchers, who linked the prevalence of loneliness in this group partly to social media use.

Immigrant and LGBTQ+ populations are also at higher risk of experiencing loneliness, per the CDC.

Lack of Access to Care Exacerbates the Problem

In addition to an increase in the need for psychiatric care with the rise in mental health conditions, getting that care can be difficult. Every year since 2011, the percentage of people with a mental illness who report unmet need for treatment has increased, says MHA. Additionally, more than half of adults with a mental illness do not receive treatment.

According to MHA, approximately 11% of adults and youth with mental illness are uninsured. This data is despite people having more access to affordable healthcare via the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Further, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), over 25 million rural Americans live in areas where there is a shortage of mental health professionals—so even if they have the means to talk to a professional, there might not be one available. So while people may have insurance that covers mental health services, if those services are unavailable, it kind of cancels out the benefits of having insurance.

How To Get Help

If you feel you need help with your mental health, reaching out to a healthcare provider is a good place to start. They can give you information on resources in your area and provide a referral to a mental health specialist if necessary.

You can also check out the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services mental health website for phone numbers and service locators for assistance in directing you to the help you need. Further, you can call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to get referrals to local treatment centers, support groups, and other community-based organizations.

Online therapy services, which are becoming increasingly common, are a desirable option if you need services at a reduced price or want a convenient way to receive care. Keep in mind, however, that online services may not be the best option if you're dealing with a complex psychiatric disorder. If you don't have insurance, community clinics offer mental health services on an income-based sliding fee scale.

There are several ways to find a culturally competent provider or one that's trained to be responsive to serving your unique cultural needs. Health previously reported that digital mental health sites, such as Hurdle and Ayana Therapy, are aimed at diverse communities and offer a culturally responsive approach. Resources like Psychology Today's therapist directory and MHA also allow you to narrow your search for a therapist by applying specific characteristics, such as language and sexuality.

Know that if you or someone you know is in crisis, immediate help is available. Call or text 988 or chat at The lifeline, which is available 24/7, is free and confidential.

Caring for your mental health is as important as ever, especially with so many factors contributing to the rise in mental illness worldwide. That said, if you have any concerns about your mental health or well-being, don't hesitate to seek help. If you're having a difficult time finding the right resources, ask a trusted friend or family member to help you—the more support the better.

A Quick Review

Mental illness has risen in the United States, with about 20% of people in the country experiencing some form of it. The increase is due to the rise in social media, the COVID-19 pandemic, and societal trends that have resulted in smaller family units and less community involvement. The mental health crisis, which is particularly acute for older people and the youngest adults, is compounded because people lack health insurance or access to a healthcare provider depending on where they live. But there are options if you need help with your mental health, from more affordable online services to community clinics to mental health websites that can direct you to more information.

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