Why are mental health problems so common?

23 June 2014


Why are mental health problems so common?


Hannah - Hello. I'm Hannah Critchlow and this month in Naked Neuroscience, we'll be opening our minds with a special Q&A show. We'll be discussing treatments for depression.

Liz - So the first in my life, I took antidepressants. It felt like I've been a car that had something wrong with the engine and then it's kind of dragging along the road and someone had fixed it. It was just rolling really beautifully.

Hannah - Discovering how we can change our behaviour for the better.

Roger - So we said a little while ago, I said, "A new habit takes about 82 days to form." So actually, we can be patient with ourselves as things get going. It's not instant.

Hannah - And divulging tricks to help you lose those extra pounds.

Katie - You sit in front of the tele and eat food, you don't realise quite how much you're eating. You don't attend to it and you don't feel fill so quickly.

Hannah - We've had stacks of great questions in from you and accrued of brainy panel to tackle them. They are.

Roger - I'm Dr. Roger Kingerlee. I work in Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Trust as a clinical psychologist with a particular research interest in mild psychological health.

Liz - My name is Liz Fraser. I'm an author and broadcaster and I have recently setup the website inmyheadcase.com to completely change the face of mental health.

Martin - Martin O'Neill and I use basic neuroscience techniques to investigate decision making mechanisms.

Katie - I'm Katie Manning and I'm a PhD student here at Cambridge in the department of psychiatry and I use MRI imaging to look at connectivity in the brain.

Hannah - And with them, we'll be finding out why chocolate helps to boost happiness. We'll be stumping scientists with the question, is there such a thing as freewill or is life all predetermined? And have you ever heard or seen things that other people don't, so experienced hallucination? Apparently, 10% of the population do. And we'll be discussing the case of a musician who hears music when he's nodding off to sleep.

First up though, David Bailey got in touch asking, "Why are brain conditions and mental health problems so common?"

In children, there's been a 25-fold increase in autism diagnosis over the last 20 years. Now, 1 in every 100 of primary school children will be affected in the UK whilst 1 in every 20 school children will have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD and it's not only children. Overall, the percentage of adults diagnosed with mental ill health has steadily increased. The best estimates today suggests that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a problem every year with 10% of the population affected by, for example, depression or anxiety. So, is it just that we were better at recognising conditions and seeking help, or something about today's society be to blame? First up, Roger.

Roger - Well we know from the statistics you've already mentioned that all of our families and all of our workplaces, we can have people around us who have these issues if we haven't got them ourselves. If we go back evolutionarily, one of the things we know is that life is always very challenging and potentially very stressful. So, right from the world ago, we've always faced a lot of different threats in the environment. The threats can produce stress in all sorts of different ways. We know that stress is a big driver of psychological issues of all kinds. To come back to the present of course, especially since the recession, since around 2007, 2008, most people, most families at least in the UK often work harder.

Hannah - Is there anything that we can do to try and help protect ourselves against this increasing mental health problem?

Roger - There's a huge amount we can do. So, whether that's giving ourselves a little more time to look after ourselves, whether it's doing things like using relaxation techniques or increase the meditation techniques, so much is known about how to protect ourselves.

Liz - It is fairly destigmatised now. I think people are not frightened anymore. They still are, but less so to put their hand up and say, "I'm not dealing with things very well. I'm not coping very well." We have to be so careful when we talk about increase in the numbers of cases of things. Is it just because we're reporting it more? Why would we be reporting it more? Because the knowledge is out there so we know much more about it. Therefore, we're reporting it more. Therefore, there is more diagnosis and therefore, there is more prescriptions. I don't agree with that. I think that the evidence seems to suggest that they are in fact increasing and what you were talking earlier about stress. And it's funny because people often say, "Well, you know, life is easy. We're not at war." There aren't the sort of the daily manual struggles that people used to have. But actually, one of the things that we know causes a lot of - I suppose stress and unhappiness in people is a difference between expectation and reality. And so, I think so many people now are not living the normal life path that they perhaps expected to live. That sort of very traditional, 'grow-up, get a job, get married, have a house' with is maybe not crazy, but at least it has a stability and because that's perhaps boring but at least stable framework. This doesn't exist for so many people. The levels of stress are really on the increase and as you're quite right, you said, stress then causes all of these problems.

Roger - Just to point out, it's well-known that social support can be really important, is a buffer against stress and psychological issues. Perhaps even against physical issues as well. So, that's something else we can do - actively seek out support.

Katie - Although there's still a stigma that surrounds mental health, there's now more options and availability of support particularly with things like autism when a child can be diagnosed and that diagnosis opens up the availability of various forms of support whether that be in education or outside of education. That now, getting that diagnosis is actually important in terms of getting help for somebody's child whereas in the past, if that was just destigmatising diagnosis then that was perhaps something to shy away from.

Martin - Thinking from a basic neuroscience perspective as well, we've come to appreciate just how intricately designed the brain is with billions of neurons, billions of connections between neurons, billions of chemicals. So, it's actually perhaps not that surprising. When there's a little glitch in the system, there can be these profound effects on mental processes, emotional processes. In effect, that sort of appreciation helps is the destigmatisation as well and it's what's almost making mental disorder seem like they're becoming more common. But perhaps have always been around but we are just more willing to accept and address those issues.

Hannah - There's another area of neuroscience that's really kind of gaining a lot of information, and also momentum. That's the neuroscience of resilience - so how we can become more resilient to these stressors and how we can maintain a flourishing and happy mind in society as well.

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