UK hits bottom of mental wellbeing league

Woman using smartphone.

Could owning a smartphone and eating ultra-processed foods lead to poor mental health?

Yes, according to research published in ‘The Mental State of the World in 2023’ 1, which suggests that people in wealthier countries might be at risk of poor mental health partly because they own smartphones sooner, eat ultra-processed foods more often and have weaker family ties than their peers in poorer nations.

The same report – which focuses on internet-enabled populations – ranks 71 countries in order of their populations’ mental wellbeing. The three top countries are the Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. At number 71 sits Uzbekistan, with the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa in 70th and 69th place respectively.

That makes the UK the second-worst place in the world for mental wellbeing!

Good mental health does not depend on wealth

Published in March 2024, ‘The Mental State of the World in 2023’ found that mental wellbeing was still worse than before the Covid pandemic – something that, it claims, “raises important questions about the lasting impact of the pandemic, and how shifts in the way we live and work and the amplification of existing habits (e.g. remote working, online communication, consumption of ultra-processed food, use of single-use plastics) have cumulatively pushed us into a space of poorer mental wellbeing.”

With a number of African and Latin American countries leading the table, and wealthier countries such as the UK and Australia (in 66th place) being towards the bottom, the report provides further evidence that “greater wealth and economic development do not necessarily lead to greater mental wellbeing.”

Smartphones impact mental health

In relation to smartphones, responses from current 18–24-year-olds suggest that acquiring a phone at a younger age is likely to result in worse mental health in adulthood, with 74% of female respondents who got their first smartphone at age six being classified as “distressed” or “struggling”.

That fell to 61% for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 10 and to 52% for those who got it aged 15.

The impacts of owning a smartphone on poor mental wellbeing include symptoms such as suicidal thoughts, feeling detached from reality and feeling aggressive towards others, says the report.

Those symptoms were found to be less common among young people growing up in countries where they do not have a smartphone until they’re older (at the age of about 14/15 in Latin America and 16 in Sub Saharan Africa).

These findings suggest that “greater wealth and economic development does not necessarily lead to greater mental wellbeing, but instead can lead to consumption patterns and a fraying of social bonds that are detrimental to our ability to thrive” says the report, which argues that countries should not define human progress and wellbeing solely in economic terms.

Countries should invest in mental health

The idea of using alternative measures to gauge how well a country promotes its citizens’ good mental health is illustrated in another survey, this time based on 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Carried out by specialist insurance company William Russell 2, it examined:

  • weekly working hours;
  • how much time people have each day for sleep, leisure and personal care;
  • how much green space the country has; and
  • the percentage of government healthcare expenditure dedicated to mental health.

On the basis of those criteria, the top three countries for mental health in 2024 are Sweden, Luxembourg and Norway (the UK ranked 26th of 35).

All three are relatively wealthy countries (Luxembourg is the richest country in Europe), but it is not wealth in itself that helps puts them at the top – it is their decision to invest money in mental health services for their citizens.

Mental disorders usually start when people are young

Given the fact that half of the world’s human population will develop a mental health disorder by the age of 75, that investment can make a real difference. As the World Health Organization points out: “Many mental health conditions can be effectively treated at relatively low cost, [but] health systems remain significantly under-resourced”. 3

A study by Harvard Medical School and the University of Queensland 4 revealed that the three most common mental illnesses among women were depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For men, alcohol abuse was the top issue, followed by depression and anxiety.

Based on face-to-face surveys with more than 150,000 adults in 29 countries, the research also showed that mental health disorders typically start in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.

Mental health worse in the UK

Statistics show that the UK’s low ranking for mental wellbeing in ‘The Mental State of the World in 2023’ is borne out by people’s real-life experiences.

Health – including mental health – is a devolved policy area in the UK, with each of the four nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) collecting and publishing their own data separately.

This makes is difficult to get a picture of the state of mental health across the UK as a whole.

However, the Statista Research Department reports that in 2020/21, during the Covid pandemic, anxiety levels in the UK were at their highest level since 2011/12. 5

Mental health issues are the single largest cause of disability in the UK, with 25% of adults suffering from at least one mental health illness in any given year, according to Statista 6, with “social, economic, biological, and psychological factors” all playing their part.

Unfortunately, many people are reportedly deterred from seeking care and treatment because of the (perceived) stigma associated with mental illness, says Statista.

Sources show that Wales had the highest anxiety levels in the whole of the UK in 2012, 7 and that poor mental health and wellbeing in the workplace could cost an organisation in Wales employing 50 people nearly £78,000 a year. 8

Figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that, for the period 29 September to 23 October 2022, some 16% of adults in Great Britain experienced moderate to severe depressive symptoms, with 59% of people economically inactive because of long-term sickness affected by those symptoms. 9

More positively, data from the House of Commons Library shows that almost half (49.9%) of people who completed a course of talking therapy recovered to the point that “they were no longer classed as having a clinical case of a mental health problem”. 10

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that people in the UK tend to suffer more from poor mental health than their counterparts in other countries.

Early access to smartphones may be a contributing factor.

The regulator Ofcom has found that infant school children “are increasingly online and given more digital independence by parents”, with almost a quarter (24%) of 5–7-year-olds owning a smartphone and three quarters (76%) using a tablet device. 11

Evidence presented by the House of Commons Education Committee is even more concerning:

“Screen use has been found to start as early as six months of age. One in five children aged between three and four years old have their own mobile phone, increasing to one in four children by age eight and to almost all children by age 12.” 12

The Committee has called for the new Government to work with Ofcom on measures regarding smartphones for children under the age of 16, “including the possibility of a total ban”.

Whether such a move could move the UK higher up the mental wellbeing league table remains to be seen.

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References

1 Global Mind Project: The Mental State of the World in 2023: A Perspective on Internet-Enabled Populations

2 William Russell Europe SRL: Which Countries Are The Best For Mental Health In 2024?

3 World Health Organization: Mental health

4 Harvard Medical School: Half of World’s Population Will Experience a Mental Health Disorder

5 Statista: Anxiety levels of people in the United Kingdom from 2011/12 to 2022/23

6 Statista: Mental health in the United Kingdom (UK) – statistics & facts

7 Statista: Anxiety levels of regions of the United Kingdom in 2020/21

8 Public Health Wales: Mental Health and Wellbeing

9 Office for National Statistics: Census 2012: Cost of living and depression in adults, Great Britain: 29 September to 23 October 2022

10 House of Commons Library: Research Briefing: Mental health statistics: prevalence, services and funding in England

11 Ofcom: A window into young children’s online worlds

12 UK Parliament: Education Committee: Stronger guidance and controls needed to protect children from screen time, Education Committee finds