Are mental health issues a First World problem?

By Lucy Skrine

Nowadays, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in their lives. For this reason, mental wellbeing is a hugely topical issue in modern society, and coronavirus has certainly given agency for it to deteriorate. With recent events such as the Yemen humanitarian crisis taking centre stage on social media outlets, it is important that we do not undermine the gravity of our own suffering as well. This article will focus specifically on debunking the myth that mental illness is a first world issue.

Undoubtedly, some people do cling to the entrenched mindset that mental health illnesses are exclusive to people in the First World. Factually speaking, it is less diagnosed in the third world; for example, 20% of the American population reported being depressed, in stark contrast to 6-7.4% of the population of Nigeria. No one country is a hellscape for mental illness, but Greenland (generally considered a developed country), has the highest DALY (disability-adjusted life year – a benchmark measurement of mental illness). Often, it is purely a biological gamble for people to become mentally ill. Other times, people have a genetic vulnerability to mental illnesses, which is ultimately provoked by upsetting life experiences (abuse, bullying, conflict, etc.). Such trauma can occur despite the comforts we might otherwise enjoy in the first world.

This leads me to my next point: is mental illness a cultural phenomenon? One could argue that occidental societies condition people into living depressing lifestyles, which centralise on incessant competition, striving toward unattainable standards of perfection and seeking external validation. This compounds with the misconception that because people in the first world have more resources, access to treatment and knowledge surrounding the issue, that it does not exist in poorer parts of the world, when it is probable that there are similar rates of (inconspicuous) suffering elsewhere. To an extent, people do equate mental illnesses with being a luxury problem, as it is on an entirely incomparable scale to various travesties which strike the world today, such as world hunger. From a slightly more cynical point of view, increased levels of mental health illness and awareness do serve to create a market for therapy practices, psychiatrists, etc to gain profit. These ideas can misguide people toward the belief that mental illness is only intrinsic to a capitalist societal structure, but does not detract from the reality that mental illness is something we must universally address and tackle.

On the other hand, the incidence of schizophrenia is actually associated with lower socioeconomic status, as it affects an estimated 33 million people in developing countries. Fundamentally, there is a clear correlation between nations with high poverty rates and mental health issues. In 2014, the WHO reported that an individual’s physical health and economic standing were the two most significant determinants of mental illness in the developing world. Even though poverty is most likely not the direct root of mental health issues, high stress levels, human rights violations, malnourishment and other side-effects of living in poverty contribute majorly to them being triggered in individuals. Furthermore, brain disorders comprise 15% of all diseases in developing countries, and a myriad of mental illnesses including depression and bipolar disorder are predicted to affect up to 1.5 billion people worldwide (emphasis on worldwide – not first-worldwide!). Nearly 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems in the UK lose their jobs annually – mental health issues are not a first world problem if people risk not being able to sustain their own livelihoods.

It is only recently (and admittedly more so in occidental countries where our education and medical systems have adapted to understand and openly discuss these issues), that we have been able to name and categorise the mental challenges people face. There is a tendency to confuse the rise in reportings, which is due to de-stigmatisation and availability of platforms for people to seek help, of mental illness with the rise of mental illness itself. The phrase “first world problem” usually carries implicit judgement for innate privilege which is unfair in the case of mental illness, which no one chooses to have. We should aim not to invalidate mental health problems, because even if one maintains that they are a first world problem, they are evidently a byproduct of a prescribed way of living, which people can modify for the better.

Overall, in the way in which mental illness is perceived has undergone a drastic evolution, from its existence being denied, to it becoming a taboo topic, and finally it being recognised as a legitimate issue. There is a spectrum: everyone experiences some form of mental tribulation, irrespective of whether that manifests itself as an official mental illness or not. It is virtually impossible to fathom the hardships of others, let alone when they are afflicted by mental illness, because its symptoms are not visible. As a result, it is pivotal that we erase prejudices and educate ourselves on mental health issues that people continue to battle.


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