The mental health industry has evolved significantly over the past few decades. From groundbreaking clinical discoveries to the departure from decrepit asylum systems, improved public perception, and increasing community involvement in treatment and caregiving, these changes are a significant upgrade to our mental health system.

At any point in time, about one in five Americans are dealing with some form of mental illness, and one out of 25 are battling serious illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and chronic depression.

The notion of mental health problems was once all about 'shrinks', prescription pills, and years running in an asylum. But today, the language has changed significantly, and more players are getting involved, from governments across all levels to research institutions and private businesses. Mental health is now being treated on par with physical health, with similarly efficient clinical procedures for diagnosing and managing mental health issues.

In this dossier, we will look at the current state of our mental health system, how it has evolved over the years, and current trends that will shape the industry going forward.

The impact of mental health on individuals and communities

To set the tone for our expedition into the world of mental health, let's make it crystal clear why mental health has received so much attention and support lately. Let's look at how mental health impacts us as individuals, communities, and a society.

Mental health issues are more pervasive than previously thought

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as: "A state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community." However, most people don't enjoy this state of being most of the time.

From a modern clinical perspective, mental health problems are much more pervasive than most people believe. This ranges from acute illnesses like bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to more subtle afflictions like claustrophobia (feeling unnecessarily uneasy in any crowded space).

Mental issues can give rise to everything from productivity dips to substance abuse, physical illnesses, and even suicide. Depression is the leading cause of suicide, with 60% of suicide victims having a history of mood disorders. Also, reports show that suicide rates have increased by over 35% since 1999.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn't help matters either. The strain on health facilities and movement restrictions severely limited access to mental healthcare facilities, exacerbating the impact of mental health problems.

A McKinsey study suggests that the pandemic may have likely led to a 50% increase in mental health issues. In a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a staggering 90% of Americans believe that the pandemic has affected their mental health, with 19% saying they have been seriously affected.

The economic impact of mental health problems

Mental health problems are one of the biggest challenges facing workplace productivity and our economy as a whole. Between absenteeism, low workplace morale, low productivity, and physical health issues, mental health problems are costing our economy billions of dollars in lost working hours and increased healthcare bills.

In 2015, chronic depression alone put a $210 billion hole in the economy, according to a peer-reviewed study highlighted by the McKinsey review. Half of that cost came from absenteeism and low productivity, and the other half from treatment costs.

A few years ago, the World Health Organization officially recognized workplace stress and employee burnout as a bona fide medical condition. Many reports have emerged since then proving this was no exaggeration.

In one disturbing report by Mind Share Partners in 2019, 75% of Gen Z respondents reported that mental health problems were one of the main reasons they quit a job. Employees are increasingly demanding more workplace support for their mental healthcare. Businesses are increasingly coming under pressure to invest more in the resources needed to help their workers cope with mental health challenges.

The impact on overall health

Mental health issues are often harbingers of more serious physical ailments. It is no surprise that businesses are paying much more for their employees' healthcare at a time when workplace stress is increasing at an alarming rate.

Stress and depression can have a huge impact on physiological health, wreaking havoc on metabolism, the immune system, and glands and organs. This can give rise to a variety of physical illnesses, from minor illnesses to more serious chronic issues.

In a recent study, researchers investigated the link between mental stressors and our ability to fight off diseases and stay healthy. According to the researchers' report: "Psychological stress can down-regulate various parts of the cellular immune response. Communication between the CNS [central nervous system] and the immune system occurs through chemical messengers secreted by nerve cells, endocrine organs, or immune cells, and psychological stressors can disrupt these networks.”

Medical intervention often arrives late for mental health patients. A mental health issue may be overlooked or underrated, and by the time the patient begins to seek treatment, the symptoms may have compounded.

Another troubling link between mental health issues and physical issues is that mental health problems tend to drive people into unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse, increasing the risks of serious physical ailments.

The benefits of good mental health

The main driving force behind the increasing support for mental healthcare in recent times is the proven benefits of investing in mental healthcare. Here are some of the reasons why individuals, businesses, and communities are increasingly prioritizing mental healthcare.

Improved sense of belonging 

Loneliness can affect our lives in many adverse ways, from low productivity to depression and social anxiety disorders. When you are in an excellent state of mind, there's a strong sense of belonging. You feel like a valued member of the community, and you will be inspired to help uplift the lives of people around you.

This is very different than trying to fit in or being pressured to change your behavior to suit others.

Stronger sense of community

Strong mental health requires a supportive community. Therefore, mental healthcare goes beyond the individual and encompasses the community and environment. It requires building robust support networks and cultivating strong community values.

Improved mental healthcare means inspiring a strong sense of security and belonging among members of the community.

A stronger sense of purpose and direction

Good mental health requires consistent cultivation of a sense of purpose, and consciously finding meaning and direction in everything you do. When your mental health is in top shape, you clear out any fog or distractions that could prevent you from making good decisions in all your endeavors.

You will always feel in your 'zone', where you can perform at your best and live life to the fullest.

Increased resilience against stress 

Mental strategies for coping with stress are the cornerstone of mental health. Rather than resorting to substance abuse, aggression, or isolation, you can use mental health strategies to resolve any stressful situations, whether they are about your finances, relationship, or work.

It is not necessarily about buttoning up and exercising self-control, but about embracing changes, finding healthier ways to destress, and developing good communication and interpersonal skills for diffusing tense situations.

Improved self-image 

Mental health issues and poor self-image often work hand in hand, feeding into each other. For instance, people with substance abuse issues often battle with low self-esteem, and this often pushes them further into depression and more substance abuse. When your mental health is in a good state, you have a strong positive self-image, and this, in turn, boosts your self-confidence, inspiring healthier life choices.

Healthier relationships 

When you are in a healthier state of mind, it rubs off on those around you. You become more patient, empathetic, and accommodating to those in your life. You will be able to cultivate effective interpersonal skills, showing more emotional support and affection to your friends, family, and acquaintances.

Increased productivity 

One place where excellent mental health shines through is the workplace. When your mental health is thrown out of balance, motivation to work reduces until you are barely going through the motions (presenteeism) or missing out on work for the slightest reasons. But with your mental health in tip-top shape, you feel at your best, positive and upbeat, even if there is a mountain load of work or many difficult tasks on your schedule.

Enhanced quality of life 

No one enjoys life when they are barely scraping by, hardly finding anything that piques their interest. Improved mental health could be the difference between spiraling into depression and bursting with life.

You will likely become more passionate, engaged, and committed in everything you do. For instance, when you are in a good mood, you wouldn't want to pass up any opportunity for some adventure - team-building activities, volunteering, or indulging in a hobby or side hustle. You will also become more motivated to make health-conscious choices - healthy eating habits, exercising, avoiding unhealthy lifestyles like frequent late nights and poor sleep schedules, etc.

Enhanced physical health 

Just like poor mental health can inhibit the performance of your organs and body systems, good mental health can also boost them. For instance, effective coping strategies for workplace stress can give your heart an extra layer of protection against stress-related cardiovascular conditions.

Excellent coping strategies can also provide a line of defense against relapsing into substance abuse or other mental health challenges.

Getting into great physical shape 

Mental health strategies these days incorporate health-conscious habits like exercising and good eating habits. Exercise is now considered a major tool for not only getting the body in shape but also maintaining mental resilience to fight off mental fatigue and stress.

Research shows that regular exercise can stimulate the mind and prevent people from falling into mild to moderate depression. Exercising also provides an avenue for venting emotions, making it a healthier way to enjoy emotional release compared to drugs, alcohol abuse, and eating disorders.

Living in the moment 

Life in the modern world is plagued by distractions, worries, and a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity. Persistent workplace stress can leave you in a perpetual state of tension and suspense, with issues including:

  • Dwindling concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Confusion
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fear

It takes a high level of mental acuity to stay committed to your goals and dreams. With mental clarity, you live in the present, focused on the issues at hand and not easily distracted by what is happening around you.

Current trends that shape the future of mental healthcare

Now, let's look at some important trends to keep an eye on in the mental health space. These trends have been among the major forces driving positive change in the industry for the past few decades and are poised to shape the industry going forward.

Improved public perception 

Not long ago, when people heard of mental health problems, all they could think of was the more severe forms or someone going 'cuckoo'. But today, people can talk freely about their common mental health challenges without any fear of stigmatization. As a result, people are more willing to seek help earlier on rather than hide their mental problems until they become severe. 

Greater access to mental healthcare 

According to a 2018 survey of mental health patients, 42% said poor insurance coverage and high cost prevented them from accessing quality mental healthcare. However, as more parties are coming to embrace the importance of mental health for overall health and well-being, access is opening to more resources for mental healthcare delivery. As stigmatization continues to fade away, many businesses are changing their ‘don't ask, don't tell’ approach to mental health to ‘do ask, do tell, let's talk.’

More players joining the fray 

We are also witnessing more parties becoming more vested in mental healthcare, from health institutions to research firms, private businesses, and governments across all levels. Public awareness of mental health issues has reached unprecedented levels, thanks to compelling stories from social media, TV drama, and advocacy campaigns.

The language is evolving too 

Mental health has gradually gained its way into everyday conversations thanks to an improved understanding of mental health issues.

"The conversations we have now we would never have had 10 years ago,” says Mike Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, and past president of the New York City chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). “We’re more open and interested in talking about mental health and about respecting it.”

Improved technology ecosystem 

Telemedicine and data-driven healthcare have also been major forces behind the recent upgrades to our mental health system. Clinical systems are now more interconnected, with more robust data-sharing networks enabling many different healthcare experts to work on the same patient case file, from GPs to neurologists and psychiatrists, regardless of where the patient is currently receiving treatment.

Policymakers are catching up 

Over the past few years, a raft of new regulations have been introduced across the local, state, and federal levels to provide more protection for people's mental health and step up access to quality mental healthcare. These regulations have elevated healthcare to the same level as physical health, making it an equal priority in research and funding programs. A typical example is The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010.

Some key challenges facing the industry 

Despite these encouraging trends, the healthcare industry is still plagued with many challenges.

Here are some of the major issues currently preventing the effective delivery of mental healthcare.

A less efficient data management system 

Compared to physical health, mental health still has a long way to go in developing a comprehensive data system for managing patient data. As such, mental health experts often struggle to access data on the mental health history of patients, preventing quick, efficient diagnosis and treatment. Researchers also lack access to adequate public data for comparative studies and public health research.

However, the situation is poised to improve as people are becoming more forthcoming with their condition and access to healthcare delivery continues to open up.

A shortfall of mental health experts

Unfortunately, while mental health is increasingly going mainstream and demand for mental healthcare is on the rise, we are not seeing an equivalent uptake of mental health professions. The system is currently overwhelmed, giving rise to inefficiencies and increasingly expensive service delivery.

Mental health experts are becoming highly sought after, and now is the best time to pick up a career in mental health. If you have been considering one, an online course like this online master in social work from Keuka Online College can help you quickly find your footing. It features 33 hours of online coursework designed to help you gain a firm grip on subjects including:

  • Professional and ethical issues.
  • Clinical social work skills.
  • Theoretical psychopathology.
  • Assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health issues.

In addition, you can gain some vital hands-on, real-life experience to kickstart your career with over 500 hours of clinical placement. Plus, it is a 100% online course load, so you have the flexibility to study at your pace.

Conclusion: mental health is an individual and collective responsibility 

The mental healthcare industry has evolved significantly in recent times and continues to widen its horizon. Today, the conversation on mental health issues is changing, the stigma is fading away, and people are increasingly coming to terms with the practical benefit of treating mental health with the same level of attention and care as physical illnesses.

Businesses are now taking a preemptive approach to mental health, striving to arrest subtle mental health problems before they compound into more serious health issues that are more expensive to manage. Access to quality mental healthcare is opening up, with the proliferation of delivery points, and the advent of telemedicine, among other things. However, the industry still has a long way to go to catch up with the physical health industry, with a shortfall of mental health experts and an underdeveloped data management system. Things continue to look up for the industry, though, as they have over the past few decades.