So, the third annual Mental State of the World Report has dropped, and once again we’re all depressed and nobody likes us. Okay, that may not strictly be true: there’s a smattering of good news in among the concerning findings. But overall, the world is in a similar situation to the past two years – the only difference being that we seem to be less stressed about COVID now, and more upset about our home lives.
But what exactly have we learned from this massive, multi-national mental health survey? Who fares best? Who’s suffering most? And most importantly: is there anything we can do about it?
The good news: our mental health has (just about) stopped deteriorating
Since 2020, the world’s mental health has seemed to only be going in one direction: down. In 2022, though, that trend seems to have changed – perhaps not reversing, but at least stalling.
“The data… provides a barometer for how our global society is faring as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report notes. “We find that in 2022, the needle on this barometer stayed steady, with no further decline in mental wellbeing, but also no signs of a recovery to pre-pandemic levels.”
Data collected from 407,959 respondents from 64 countries, all of whom responded to the open online anonymous Mental Health Quotient, or MHQ, survey, found that the global average MHQ for 2022 was a fairly respectable 64. That puts the average Internet-enabled Earthling at a “managing” level of mental health – better off than those who are “distressed”, “struggling”, or “enduring”, but not quite at “succeeding” or “thriving” levels.
It's the same score, in fact, as last year’s result – and worryingly, the percentage of those in the world reporting “distressed” or “struggling” levels of mental health has increased, albeit only by a single percentage point.
While the picture is very slightly more positive for the English-speaking world, there are two countries in particular that seem to buck the trend: the UK and South Africa. These came dead last in global MHQ scores – an “enduring” 46.2 and 47.5 respectively – and had the highest proportions of distressed or struggling people among their populations. The happiest place in the world, on the other hand, seems to be Swahili-speaking Sub-Saharan Africa – that’s where the average MHQ score was highest, and the percentage of those distressed or struggling was lowest.
A word of advice, however: that’s also one of the regions surveyed where internet access is still pretty rare. “In these regions the Internet-enabled populations are not reflective of the overall population of the country,” the report cautions, “but instead represent individuals who typically have greater levels of education and come from higher socioeconomic groups.”
The bad news: younger generations are struggling more
“One of the most prominent trends in the Mental Health Million data over the years is the declining mental wellbeing with each successively younger generation. This is reflected in decreasing MHQ scores and a corresponding increase in percentage Distressed or Struggling with significant mental health challenges in each younger age group.”
“This trend is apparent in the Internet-enabled populations of every country measured from Africa to Asia, Europe to the Americas,” the report continues. “There is not a single region or language group or country where the decline in mental wellbeing across successively younger generations is not apparent.”
Just how bad is it? Put it this way: if you’re a newly-fledged adult in Latin America or South Asia, there’s about a one in two chance your mental health is bad enough to qualify for professional help. Over 55s in those same areas, on the other hand, have a one in 10 chance of the same – meaning they’re only a fifth as likely as their grandchildren’s generation to be distressed or struggling.
But breaking down mental health as a whole into six subcategories – adaptability and resilience, social self, mind-body connection, drive and motivation, cognition, and mood and outlook – shows exactly where our inner turmoil is strongest.
The good news: scores were highest across the global Internet-enabled population for the first category in the list, adaptability and resilience. With an average score of 85 on the scale from -100 to 200, that means that people the world over are most confident in their abilities to shift their behavior and outlook in response to changing circumstances and cope with challenges and setbacks.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’re struggling most with our mood and outlook, the report finds. But perhaps more concerning is the second-lowest scoring category: social self, or how we interact with, relate to, and see ourselves with respect to others. Coming only three points higher than mood and outlook, social self is the dimension of mental function that shows the steepest drop between generations: according to the data, those aged between 55-64 score nearly 70 points higher than 18–24-year-olds in this category.
That’s concerning. Poor social self is known to correlate with national rates of suicide, physical assault, and sexual abuse – things which, in turn, contribute to a poor sense of social self. In other words, as the report explains, “our deteriorating Social Self [is] a self-reinforcing feedback loop.”
Our relationships are more fractured – and that’s bad news for mental health
With such a large decrease in our sense of social self – that is, how we relate to others – it may not come as a surprise that our familial relationships are suffering. “Our first relationships are with our family,” the report points out, “and many studies have shown a link between strong family relationships and happiness as well as other outcomes of life success.”
Once again, the picture is particularly dire for the younger generations. Globally, the percentage of people who consider themselves close to their family decreased with each younger generation: only slightly more than one in five adults aged 18-24, compared with twice as many adults aged 75 or above. Conversely, one in 10 18 to 24-year-olds reported being so distant that they would prefer not to see their family at all – more than three times the number of those aged 75 or older that said the same thing.
If you’re wondering why such a stark pattern would emerge, there are clues in some of the supporting data. With each generation, the report found, there was a steady increase in the number of people who reported a childhood in which their parents provided everything they needed materially and were very invested in their academic and other accomplishments. At the same time, though, the percentage reporting a stable and loving childhood home decreased dramatically with younger generations – and the numbers reporting traumas such as family breakups, violence, and emotional abuse, or neglect only increased.
Unsurprisingly, these results are not happy news for the world’s mental health, with those reporting both instability and emotional distance during childhood being more than three times as likely to suffer mental health challenges than those from stable and loving homes.
Still, at least we can still count on our friends to help us through, right? Well, yes – but once again, that’s more likely to be true for those of us in an older age bracket.
“Across age groups the average number of friends decreased with younger generations, flattening out after age 45,” the report finds. “The generation aged 75+ reported 4.7 close friends on average while those under 45 reported an average of 3 to 3.2 friends.”
Meanwhile, almost one in eight 18–24-year-olds reported having no close friends at all – twice as many as the number of over 75-year-olds saying the same.
Most unfortunately of all, those friendships are lacking precisely for those who need them most: while the vast majority of us do seem to have at least one pal to keep us going, being distant with your family increases your chances of not having any close friends by a factor of more than three. Those of us close with our families can expect to have around two more close friends than those estranged from them, in fact – and growing up in a loving and stable home correlates with more friends than growing up in an emotionally distant or unstable environment.
All combined, it’s very bad news for those of us without those firm bonds of family and friendship. “The risk of mental health challenges is 10 times lower for those with a large number of both close family relationships and friendships,” the report concludes.
The takeaway: has the internet doomed us all?
So, in conclusion: mental health is highest if you’re older and live somewhere where cultural bonds are still strong. But what’s to blame for the poor outlook given to the rest of us?
For the authors of the report, there’s one pretty big reason we’re all feeling so bad: the internet. “With its command of our individual attention for an average of seven to 10 hours a day, it leaves little time for the effort required to nurture social bonds,” they write. “Like team sports, getting good at navigating social situations and building relationships requires putting in the time on the field.”
Not only is our collective social intelligence suffering, the report suggests, but all this time online has a double whammy effect – because with more internet inevitably comes more doomscrolling and cyberbullying. This latter experience, the authors note, “appears to have an equal impact on [the] adult mental wellbeing as childhood sexual abuse; a further testament to the profoundly relational nature of our psyches.”
So what’s the lesson from this year’s Mental State of the World report? Perhaps we need to take a step back and remember what made us human in the first place.
“If there is one clear message in this data, it is that we must more explicitly acknowledge our inherently relational nature and its crucial role in our collective wellbeing,” the authors conclude.
“We have perhaps not appreciated the degree to which we are evolved as social beings. As much as we may believe that we are each independent, our wellbeing is profoundly relational in nature.”
The report is available to view here.