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  1. Health & Science
6 April 2022

In a new global survey of mental health, the UK is slumped in last place

Economic prosperity is good, but only in countries that continue to cherish a thing called society.

By Phil Whitaker

In March, Sapien Labs published the second annual “Mental State of the World” report. Their survey of 223,000 adults from selected countries confirms what many intuitively feel: the UK is currently a nation very ill at ease. We are slumped at the bottom of the league, joint lowest with South Africa, and well adrift of the 32 other countries featuring in the report.

Sapien Labs use a tool called the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), administered through a 15-minute online questionnaire, to gauge respondents’ psychological health across a range of measures: mood and outlook, drive and motivation, social relationships, cognition and mind-body connection. Interestingly, while wealthy Spain and Switzerland demonstrate high levels of mental well-being among their populations, they share the top five slots with three much poorer nations – Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Puerto Rico.

In order to take part in the survey, respondents have to be online. In poorer countries, with low internet penetration, participants will come disproportionately from privileged elites, which might skew the results. Nevertheless, the survey strongly suggests that money alone doesn’t buy mental well-being. Affluent Anglophone nations such as the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand are all clustered in the lower third of the table. This is not because speaking English is psychologically injurious; rather it probably reflects common cultural factors. Across the 34 countries surveyed, being employed and being well-educated – as most of the Anglophone and European populations studied are – were both associated with higher levels of mental well-being, but these beneficial effects are degraded the more strongly a society bases reward and recognition on an individual’s work performance, and the more individualistic the culture is. The fruits of economic prosperity are good, then, but only in countries that continue to cherish a thing called society.

[See also: We’re told apps, AI and video calls will transform the NHS. What about GPs?]

The report’s authors are alarmed by the generational differences they found. In every participant country, it is young adults (18-24) who have the highest levels of mental distress, while the over-65s are the most stable. The authors acknowledge that this could simply reflect a benign trend towards greater mental well-being with increasing maturity. However, they are concerned that they’ve uncovered an epidemic of mental ill-health among the young. They cite pre-2010 studies that showed young adults to have been the most carefree and content age group. What, they wonder, could have led to this dramatic reversal in little more than a decade?

The MHQ is a new instrument, so the Sapien Labs’ results may not be directly comparable to those of earlier studies, but there could be something real going on. The younger generation has been affected by Covid in a very particular way: compelled to sacrifice education, socialising and relationship formation because of a disease that is typically trivial at their age. The more stringent a country’s Covid restrictions, the lower the MHQ scores.

Beyond Covid, the report’s authors speculate whether they might be detecting a worrying effect of the digital revolution: the mental health consequences of lives lived predominantly online as opposed to interpersonally. But there are other equally plausible explanations for an epidemic of mental distress among the young that don’t get a mention: the threat from climate change on those with longest to live, as well as the economic and employment insecurities still being felt following the 2008 crash.

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As Sapien Labs continue to gather data it will become clear whether these high levels of youth mental distress persist or dissipate as individuals move through the life course. In the meantime, urgent political action is needed to resuscitate UK society. There is a sickness at the heart of our culture, the remedy for which can be discerned by looking to our European neighbours, whose economic circumstances are similar to our own but whose values and culture are far more conducive to mental well-being.

[See also: Why Sajid Javid should concentrate his attention on staff, not scans]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special