Increase in mental health awareness leads to mental health issues?

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Do mental health awareness campaigns lead to an increase in mental health issues? This question is surprisingly common among the general public. With the rise of mental health promotion amongst celebrities, schools, and other media outlets, there has been a title wave of seemingly positive outcomes regarding the development of mental health efforts. Alternatively, there has also been an increase in diagnoses of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues. With an increase in both program development and rates of diagnosed illness amongst the general public, it makes you wonder if there is a relationship between the reported rates of illness and the growth in mental health awareness campaigns.

A recent article set to release for April in the Journal of New Ideas in Psychology sets out to the “Prevalence inflation hypothesis.” The hypothesis argues that increased awareness leads to two factors regarding mental health and well-being. The first is that it does improve recognition of mental health issues. However, with enhanced recognition of mental illness, there is also overinterpretation of seemingly ordinary day-to-day stressors being interpreted as sicknesses they may not be. Interestingly, another article published in the Journal of European Psychiatry found increased self-diagnosis levels among teenagers with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms.

Source: Are mental health awareness efforts contributing to the rise in reported mental health problems? A call to test the prevalence inflation hypothesis.

Improved Recognition in Mental Health:

There is a bright side to all the efforts regarding mental health awareness – the campaigns are proving practical regarding various mental health disorders. Those who have not been aware of the potential of their mental health issues are reporting, and it is positively affecting people who need treatment. Further, the increase in mental health awareness campaigns has been shown to reduce the rates of death from suicide. The article notes that the first goal should be to improve the recognition of mental health issues for people genuinely in need of intervention.

Overinterpretation –

The study suggests that while the campaigns are doing an excellent job of reducing the impact of shame associated with mental health issues, it is noted that there may be a certain kind of social value in reporting mental health conditions that may be negative thoughts and emotions that are normal for day to day interactions. Interestingly, several studies have suggested that when people are constantly exposed to new mental health conditions, they can interpret those conditions as something they may have or worse than they are. The study asserts that there may be a certain kind of “self-fulfilling” prophecy and notes a significant number of studies have shown that patients who previously did not have these symptoms may bring them into existence.

There is also the issue of what the study calls “overinterpretation” creating new mental health problems in the general population. There is also the potential of increasing the severity of pre-existing conditions already present within the patient. Many mental health professionals report more and more patients coming into their practices with an idea of what they may have through self-diagnosis. Notably, there have been a number of studies that have reported that some of this self-diagnosis may be accurate which has actually improved access, awareness, and stigma reduction in their patients. However, with other patients, mental health professionals have increasingly adjusted their previous reports on the patient which may be problematic as it may lead to the creation of “new categories of patients” that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

What then should be done?

If the promotion of mental health issues does in fact assist those who need it most with identifying their mental health issues; and the promotion simultaneously the promotion has exacerbated on increase in patients reporting seemingly normal mental health issues – what should be done? The report offers a solution. Research professionals could use randomized control trials, an experimental procedure in determining awareness-raising information against those who do not, and track how they respond to that exposure over time. Further, researchers could track participants who are exposed naturally to mental health awareness campaigns in their day-to-day lives and collect information that way.

What is clear is that mental health professionals have work to do when it comes to determining the likelihood of a patient having a mental health disorder and those that are struggling with seemingly normal mental health problems and reporting them as illnesses. Further, many providers of mental health campaigns can become aware of the effects exposure to these campaigns has on overexposure in participants. Nonetheless, exposure to mental health campaigns is having a positive effect overall in reducing a major causes of death such as suicide, depression, and anxiety.