Why Is Mental Illness On The Rise?

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated March 27, 2021

why is mental illness on the rise

Anxiety Question:

Why Is Mental Illness On The Rise?

Since life is so much easier today, why are mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorder and depression, on the rise?


It’s true that our life is much easier today than it was 50 years ago. Yet, mental illness is on the rise, and drastically.

A study by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center, published earlier this year in the journal Psychiatric Services, found more Americans than ever before suffer from serious psychological distress (SPD). [1] The researchers analyzed a federal health information database and concluded that 3.4 percent of the U.S. population (more than 8.3 million) adult Americans suffer from SPD.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which conducts the National Health Interview Survey on which the research is based, SPD combines feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and restlessness that are hazardous enough to impair people's physical well-being. Previous survey estimates had put the number of Americans suffering from SPD at 3 percent or less.

Another study by the National Survey On Drug Use And Mental Health found nearly 20 percent of the adult population suffer from some type of mental illness.[2] This is up from 18.1 percent just a few years ago.

A 2010 study done by the National Institute Of Mental Health found that for the first time, youth are disproportionately affected by mental disorders.[3] The study found that one in five youth are affected by at least one type of mental disorder. According to the NCS-A researchers, the percentage of youth suffering from mental disorders is even higher than the most frequent major physical conditions in adolescence, including asthma or diabetes.

Another study, called the National College Health Assessment, by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) found more students are reporting being in distress than four years ago. The study found that one fifth of all Canadian post secondary students are depressed and anxious, or battling other mental health issues. It also found that 8 percent fewer students felt their health was very good or excellent. The study also found that the number of students who seriously considered suicide was 13 percent, up 3.5 percent from 2013.[4]

Speaking of suicide, it doesn’t get any better.

A study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting this past May (2017) found that the number of children and teens admitted to children's hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm have more than doubled during the last decade.[5]

Unfortunately, there are numerous studies all reporting the same trends: a dramatic rise in mental illness and suicide. This is particularly true for children and teens.

So, why the dramatic rise? What has changed?

There are many reasons for these alarming trends, such as:

  • Increased parental pressures
  • Increased adoption of electronic media (Electronic Screen Syndrome)
  • Increased performance pressures (education, career, financial, etc.)
  • Increased terrorist events and threats
  • Increase in divisive news
  • Dramatic increase in violent TV programs, movies, and video games
  • Dramatic increase in graphic children’s media
  • Increase in sexually explicit material (TV programs, movies, video games, easy access online, etc.)
  • Social media pressure
  • Reduced face-to-face interactions and social supports
  • The breakdown of the family unit
  • Sexual orientation confusion
  • Gender confusion
  • Being exposed to a multitude of opinions (on TV and online)
  • Being exposed to aggressive behavior (a dramatic rise in child abuse, adult abuse, sexual abuse, etc.)
  • Poor/reduced sleep
  • Increased financial pressure on parents
  • Reduced parental contact - children are prematurely separating from parents and families, and bonding to peers
  • Easy access to, and the acceptance of, recreational drugs (of all types)
  • Overly protected/indulged children
  • Reduced expectations for young adults
  • The ‘I’ generation (where everyone believes they are entitled to whatever they want, from opinions to lifestyle choices, and whenever and however they want it)

And unfortunately, many more.

While life is easier in terms of survival and work, societal norms have changed making it more difficult on our health, both psychologically and emotionally. Based on the research, this change is affecting everyone, and especially today’s children, which doesn’t bode well for our future.

The shortage of mental health resources to help those who are suffering with mental illness is another alarming trend that research has identified. On the one hand, we have a rising trend in mental illness and suicide. On the other, there are fewer resources to help address these rising trends.

What is the solution to these rising trends?

Unfortunately, there aren’t easy solutions. What is required is a wholesale rethink about the many contributing factors and then adopting healthy change. But based on how society got here, and where it’s currently headed, it’s unlikely we’ll see a positive change anytime soon. The expectation is that things will get much worse.

So, the best we can do is seek mental health support from the available resources, and then work at making families healthy one person at a time.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our Anxiety Frequently Asked Questions page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Why is mental illness on the rise.


1. Nyulmc. “Study Paints Somber Picture of US Mental Health Status and Access to Care.” EurekAlert!, 17 Apr. 2017, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-04/nlmc-sp041117.php

2. ann.lynsen. “Mental and Substance Use Disorders.” Ann.lynsen, 20 Sept. 2017, www.samhsa.gov/disorders

3. “National Survey Confirms That Youth Are Disproportionately Affected by Mental Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 27 Sept. 2010, www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2010/national-survey-confirms-that-youth-are-disproportionately-affected-by-mental-disorders.shtml

4. American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2016

5. “Children's Hospitals Admissions for Suicidal Thoughts, Actions Double during Past Decade.” AAP News, 4 Oct. 2017, www.aappublications.org/news/2017/05/04/PASSuicide050417