Five Reasons Mental Health is a Challenge Now – and Five Possible Solutions

By Lyn Turknett

Co-founder and Co-chair, TLG

I’ve thought about mental health – how to help everyone thrive, how to combat anxiety and depression, what might work for our adolescents, and how to improve mental health in the workplace – since I was very young. As an adult I’ve been in fields that supported mental health and I’ve always longed for a world where emotional pain would be diminished – and a place where, as my great niece’s kindergarten teacher said, we’d all tell the truth, work hard, and be kind. I also had a brother who was seriously depressed for much of his life. Seeing that brought emotional pain close to home.

I knew this was mental health month and that we would be publishing a newsletter about the topic, and I’d been thinking of my recommendations for improving overall mental health in our communities. Then I came across some recent research that turned a lot of what I thought on its head.

I still have opinions (I always have opinions…) about why we are in a crisis right now, but I’m feeling we all have more to learn than I thought.

My top five reasons for the current crisis in mental health:

  1. The Pandemic – The pandemic was incredibly hard on humans. We are social beings, and we are primarily designed for face-to-face interaction. We are also incredibly intelligent and adaptive, and many institutions impressively turned on a dime in order to continue to function in early 2020, but that came at a cost. We lost the comfort of other people just as we faced a virus we didn’t understand, saw job loss and economic distress, and grieved for lost loved ones. According to research, the monthly prescription rate for antidepressants increased 63.5% from 2020 to 2022. The APA found that 45% of adults ages 35 to 44 reported a mental illness in 2023, compared with 31% in 2019. Reports of physical illness increased as well. The cost was especially high for children and adolescents in their formative years.
  2. The Rise of Smart Phones – Mobile phones and social media, while terrific for productivity and obviously very hard to resist, are likely an overall minus for mental health. I admire Jonathan Haidt’s thinking, and the stats in his new book, The Anxious Generation, are compelling and frightening. The prevalence of anxiety in US undergraduates has increased 134% since 2010, and the prevalence of depression, 106%. Haidt blames the fact that children began getting smartphones – with access to social media – in 2012. 
  3. Empathy/Resilience Polarization – I am a huge believer in both empathy and resilience – life requires an embrace of contradiction. There has always been a battle between the “suck-it-up/shake-it-off” approach to pain and the “poor baby/kiss-and-make-it-better” approach. I think children and adults are happier and mentally healthier with both. We all need  to develop internal toughness and resilience while receiving plenty of love and empathy in safe environments. Many young adults, though, go from very tough survival-of-the-fittest cultures in high school to colleges full of trigger warnings and what Lukianoff and Haidt called “coddling of the mind.” 
  4. Toxic Bosses Combined with the Great Rethinking There have always been toxic bosses, and they have always put downward pressure on joy in the workplace and on earnings, but things seem to be worse now. Many managers are stressed themselves, we know that power of any kind makes bad behavior more likely, and many managers are never trained to lead people. When you combine that with already stressed employees who are much less likely to put up with harsh workplaces, problems ensue.
  5. Prevalence InflationI’m not sure, but it’s possible that some of the increase is due to an increase in awareness efforts. In some cases, symptoms may not have actually increased but individuals may now better recognize symptoms of mental health problems and feel more open to sharing them with others

As to solutions, the only thing I’m sure of is that what I’ve always considered my number one solution is not likely to work. Bob and I have talked for years about how wonderful it would be if cognitive-behavioral theory – a model that transformed our lives – could be taught in schools. Yet I read a few weeks ago that a large-scale trial – training students in the basics of mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy – was a flop. It did not improve mental health and could have led to worse outcomes for some.  

Here are my thoughts for now: 

  1. Increase Human ConnectionI was profoundly moved by hearing about the research of Dr. Julien Abel in the UK on the importance of compassion and connection for improved physical health and overall well-being. Dr. Abel led interventions in towns to increase opportunities for connecting with people who shared interests – and then measured and found that increased connection led to a dramatic improvement in physical health as well. Suppose we actually prioritized compassion, kindness, and human connection in our schools and workplaces? What if there were no bullies anywhere? Compassion matters.  
  2. Flip Mental Health Education to a Positive Focus Psychology used to be totally focused on what’s wrong with people – on fixing people who were “broken.” A revolution occurred when scientists like Martin Seligman started focusing on strengths – particularly character strengths – that could be developed. Perhaps we could shift to a well-being curriculum. The Science of Well-Being course at Yale (formerly the Science of Happiness) has been one of the most popular courses ever – perhaps we need it in all schools and workplaces. I’m biased, but I think that building the character strengths needed for leadership and helping every person understand that they have the potential and the responsibility to lead, would help. Learning emotional mastery and resilience are critical to leadership, and I still believe there are ways to introduce the concepts of cognitive-behavioral theory in ways that would improve well-being.
  3. Consider Not Giving Smart Phones to Children Haidt recommends delaying smartphones until high school and not giving a smartphone as a first phone. I’d say it’s worth a try. I like his overall recommendations for parenting – he says we are overly focused on safety in real-world environments and not focused enough on safety in online environments. He believes – and I do too – that free play with other children is the “work” of children I worry that smartphones are too addictive for any humanWe all sit close to loved ones with our attention focused on our phones and not on the people we care about. And it’s so very sad to see young children in a restaurant looking longingly at parents who are focused on the virtual world and not on their families.
  4. Help Parents Learn to Parent Bob and I were recently on a cruise excursion in St. Thomas waiting to return to the ship when a woman carrying a crying baby who seemed no more than 18 months old joined the waiting group. The mother was tired, hot, and frustrated, but when she slapped the baby twice the screaming only increased. Twenty minutes later the child was still screaming – this time sitting in the lap of the father, who had a sad, far-away look in his eyes. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all heard parents repeatedly say to a tiny child, “Honey, don’t jump in the puddle with your new shoes on” without ever speaking firmly or physically taking the child out of the puddle. We don’t do enough to help parents learn to cope. Parenting is so much harder in reality than any of us are prepared for – especially in our busy, complex world.  In simple terms, parents need to be able to seamlessly and expertly balance firmness (the ability to set limits and follow through on them) and warmth (being kind, loving, and empathetic). It’s another both/and that is incredibly difficult but essential. 
  5. Teach Everyone to Talk Across Divides  The polarization in our country can’t help but increase anxiety, anger, and depression. One of the best books I’ve read lately is Adam Grant’s Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know I also believe in the power of just listening to other people – of getting to know their story. Fred Rogers’ wife said that after he died she found in his wallet a quote from a Benedictine nun. It was “There’s no one you can’t love once you know their story. 

I certainly don’t have the answers – which is one reason I love Adam Grant’s book. I didn’t have an answer for my brother – we lost him to depression, alcoholism, and suicide when he was 44. But, like anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide, I’d give anything to have one more chance to talk, to say something encouraging, to be eternally kind And I still have no idea, exactly, how to balance that with holding him accountable and setting boundaries for myself. But I think there’s an answer somewhere – with enough love and enough learning.