Why mental illness is on the rise?

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 19/9/2020


It is true that our life is much easier today than it was 50 years ago but mental illness seems to be on the increase especially with anxiety and depression and suicide risk in the younger generation.

I would like to present my own ideas about the problem through my observation working as a general practitioner.


1-   Social changes:

With the development of new technologies, our life now is more sophisticated than many years ago and we live in a faster pace causing more stress. As human demand is ever increasing, people are pressured to buy new gadgets, update new computers, iphones, laptops, luxury cars, .. causing more financial pressure in the family and for the individual. People put more importance in acquiring material things and to work harder and harder to be able to finance that need and there is not much time for spiritual reflection.


2-   Increase parental pressure and performance pressure:

To survive in this modern world, it is important to have a successful career, a stable job and achieve a good social status. Of course parents would like their children to be successful in life so sometimes put high expectations on their children to perform and cause stress to the children. There is also a lot of competition in education opportunity and career prospect in the society.


3-   Individualistic culture;

It is a society based on individualism.  This is a society that puts emphasis on the moral worth of the individual and advocates that the interests of the individual should achieve precedence over a social group. This allows the individual to develop to the full potential and it recognises the personal identity and freedom in the society. From a young age, children are encouraged to develop and focus on their personal identity and autonomy. The adverse effect of individualism is some children believe that they are entitled to whatever they want in this life from opinions and lifestyle choices. Those children will be disappointed later on in life when they could not get what they want and become depressed.


4-   Increasing use of electronic media:

Children nowadays spent most of their time using electronic devices, playing games and connecting to social media. As a consequence there is less time for face to face social communication and social skills become limited. Within the family, there is less communication as parents are busy with work and come home tired while children mostly absorbed in their laptops or playing games.

The use of social media can increase stress levels, produce anxiety and negatively affect a person’s sense of self, and through exposure to upward comparisons can drive envy, depression and low self esteem. Friends in social media may not be actually friends and may be even strangers to take advantage of young people. There is also an opportunity for cyber bullying causing distress in many young people.


5-   Social isolation and loneliness:

With the increasing use of digital media, face to face interaction is reduced and there is an increased lack of social and family support. There is about 50 percent rate of divorce and this family breakdown causes significant stress in adults and children. There is an increase number of women who are in dire situation without a job or a stable accommodation after fleeing from a domestic violence situation as they used to be dependent on their partner and have no home renting history.


6-   Desensitization to violence:

Violence is the common theme in television programs, movies and video games. Frequent exposure to violence may increase violent behaviour as there is diminished emotional responsiveness to violence. News of terrorists attacks or random killings are common in televisions. We sometimes saw copycat type of killings of people.


7-   Exposure to aggressive behaviour:

People who experience child abuse or sexual abuse may never recover from their trauma.


8-   Acceptance of recreational drugs:

The use of party drugs, marijuana is commonly accepted in the young population as well as the use of amphetamines and heroin is an increasing social problem.


9-   Increase financial pressure:

With the increase of the pursuit of wealth and material goods, there is an increasing financial pressure for everyone. Lately with the corona virus pandemic, there is an economic recession in many countries causing more hardship in people’s life.


Some strategies to help reduce mental illness:

This is a complex social problem and in my opinion there are a few things that may help to reduce mental problem.


1-   Parents responsibility in raising the children:

To change the behaviour or moral values of an individual, we have to start to teach children from a very young age. Parents have to present a united front when dealing with young children so they can understand what is right or wrong. The thing to avoid is conflicting behaviour between father and mother, that is when a parent said no to a demand from a child, the child is upset and cries and the other parent gives way.  Or when children put up a tantrum, they could get what they want as parents are too tired, resulting in a reinforcement of that kind of behaviour. There are 2 types of children, some are upset when they could not get what they want for a short time and then start to play with other things available, while some other children put up a fight, yelling and throw themselves on the floor if they could not get what they want. Those latter will certainly have psychological problems in the future as life never gives them what they want all the time.

Parents should reward good behaviour as it is a positive reinforcement that works well in children but not give way to bad behaviour.

Parents should be a role model for the children as children learn from the people around them, so parents should practice the good moral values that they teach.

Parents should monitor television and internet usage to fit the age of the children.

Parents naturally can have high expectations for their children but they need to be realistic and aware and understand the wish of their children and do not put too much pressure for their children to perform or to make a certain career choice.  This can cause a lot of stress in young people causing anxiety problems. . In Eastern culture a lot of parents expect filial piety from their children and would like them to submit to their wishes. Sons are pressured to get married and to have children to carry their lineage to the next generation. One of my patients developed erectile dysfunction due to the constant pressure from his parents for him to have children when he was not ready.  I knew of one case where a young person suicided after he got the bachelor degree of his parents’ choice. Another father who was upset with his twin sons who liked to play rather than being serious with schooling and he told his sons to get out of the house as he could not accept such behaviour in the family. The 2 boys left home and became drug addicts selling drugs to finance their habits. Another parents disowned their son as he married someone against their wish.

Parents should be understanding and respect their children’s wishes and offer unconditional support for their children in time of need.


2-   Education:

School curriculum mostly include math, science, language studies but we seldom see moral values, social issues and mindfulness program being part of an educational curriculum in the modern days.

It is important that young children should be encouraged to develop their own individuality but there should be more emphasis on teaching children to have simple basic moral values.

Schools play an important part in preparing children to their future roles in the society to become good friends, good parents, good co-workers and good citizens because many parents do not teach moral values at home. Some parents are too busy with work or in many families there is only one parent and no role model for the children to follow. Some children may not have parents.

Teaching moral values in schools will provide children with the moral strength to counteract the bad influences in the society. Every day children are exposed to violence, dishonesty, school bullying, fights between gangs, school shootings and other social problems in the media and in the real world.


a-   Some important moral values:

-      Respect for elders and for everyone else regardless of age, race, sex, social standing or people with different religions and beliefs.

-      Unconditional love and kindness: it is crucial for children to learn that spreading love not hate will bring them happiness and success in their adulthood.

-      Compassion and empathy, to be sensitive to the needs of others. If there were more compassion in the world, there would be less conflicts, hunger, homelessness, unhappiness, depression…

-      Honesty: dishonesty and cheating are wrong and will get them nowhere in the future. Children must be encouraged to tell the truth and admit whatever mistakes they may have committed.

-      Courage and integrity:  children must learn to have the courage to accept the consequences of their actions or whatever life may bring. They also need to have the courage to stand for their own beliefs.

-      Hard work and perseverance to help them to achieve their goals.

-      Keep promises and be dependable

-      Forgiveness: anger is caused by an unwillingness to forgive. There would be less violence and fighting in schools if students could learn this value.

-      Psychological flexibility: people who do not attach rigidly to their beliefs can adjust flexibly to the demands of the situation.

-      Treat others as you want to be treated. This is the simplest message and it includes all other moral values.



b-   Social issues for teenagers:


Students should be taught about social issues for them to be aware of the associated risks.

-      Bullying can lead to psychological effects as depression, low self-esteem, loneliness…

-      Drug use:  Marijuana,  Party drug, ecstasy, amphetamine, heroin

Discussions about the danger of drug use, addiction, overdose and risks associated with aggressive behaviour while affected by drugs.

-      Alcohol consumption in under age children can affect their developing brain. Binge drinking and drunkenness in young girls sometimes produce the opportunity for others to sexually abuse them.  

-      Peer pressure: more and more kids are pressured into having sex, doing drugs and even bullying other kids. We need to give them skills to make healthy choice and to resist peer pressure

-      Social media: we should help them to learn how to navigate social media in a healthy way. Social media can have a negative impact on friendship and on their mental health. They can be exposed to unsavoury people, unhealthy images and sexual content on line.

-      Onscreen violence is common in televisions, movies and games. The true consequences of violence and aggression should be explained to the children and it is unrealistic to think that people can get away with violent behaviour.



c-   Schools should teach children about techniques to release stress and achieve peacefulness and relaxation such as mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment without any subjective interpretation. Students who practice mindfulness will have a power of concentration, efficiency and success in everything they do. This will prevent mental illness as people who are stuck with thoughts of the past usually have depression and if thinking too much about the future will give rise to anxiety.


3-   Social strategies to prevent youth problem behaviour:

The most common problems include aggressive social behaviour, risky sexual behaviour, depression, substance abuse, academic failure, school drop- out and crime. The cost of that behaviour is substantial for the young people, their families and the society.

Government should have strategies to engage the school drop-out or school leavers who do not have a job.

-      Provide more places for trade training and apprenticeship .

-      Incentives for people to work in the farms picking fruits…as farms usually rely on the workforce of backpackers and overseas workers. During the Covid 19 pandemics, there are shortages of workers in the fields.

-      Encourage youth to work in community services in councils or charity organisations.

-      Government can provide short term military training for high schools drop-outs who do not have a job. This is a controversial topic but there are over 20 countries around the world having a system of compulsory military service for all citizens believing compulsory military service could instil a sense of patriotism and make citizens more disciplined and committed. Such training can provide useful skills such as teamwork, responsibility, a sense of public identity, global awareness and help them to become better people overall. This can prevent substance abuse in youth, vandalism …

The national advantage is to build a powerful military ready to be deployed in time of crisis. Moreover the current world situation is not very stable with rising powers who would like to dominate other countries.


4-   Investment in mental health:


Government can provide more incentive for students to take up psychology study in university and include basic psychology in the curriculum in high school for all students.

There should be an increase in availability of cheap housing to reduce homelessness, increase the number of beds in hospital for acute mental health patients and increase mental health facilities to treat patients.



5-   Simple living.


The modern simplicity movement is on the rise. This is a more simplistic way of life being closer to nature in a more peaceful setting with the aim of minimizing consumption and reducing the pursuit of wealth and material goods. This is a life that is outwardly simple but inwardly rich. Choosing simplification creates a life filled with meaning by stripping away the non essential stuff to focus time and energy on things that matter the most, to pursue our true interests. Living simple can help us find meaning in life and grow spiritually by shifting the focus away from material possessions and help us to look inwardly.  This is a peaceful life far away from the stimulation of the ever increasing crowds and increasing demands of the modern life.




In summary, the rise of mental illness in the society is an important social problem that is preventable through a concerted effort from many different levels of government, schools, families and individuals. . There should be a reduced stigma of mental illness in the society, in the insurance cover and job prospect so people can come out for treatment in the early phase of the illness to reduce suicide risk.