October 3, 2023

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Mental health: Does increased social awareness lead to more complaints?

Mental health: Does increased social awareness lead to more complaints?

At least that’s what psychologists Lucy Foulkes (University of Oxford) and behavioral scientist Jack Andrews (University of New South Wales) suspect. In an academic research published in New ideas in psychologythey propose with their ‘prevalence hypertrophy’ hypothesis that increased negotiation of mental health may contribute to the exaggerated medicalization of mental complaints.

Although social awareness of psychological well-being has increased sharply in the Western world in recent decades, the number of people with mental health problems continues to rise. There is more knowledge about mental disorders among the general public, and thanks to less stigma, the step for psychological help is also smaller than before. Despite this, the medical world is reporting more patients with anxiety and eating disorders than ever before. Scientists offer several explanations for this phenomenon. Consider, for example, the increased use of social media, the academic pressure on young people, and the increase in income inequality.


According to Folks and Andrews, another factor also plays a role here, namely the positive feedback between social awareness and the prevalence of mental problems. Information campaigns and initiatives in education and in the work environment lead to better detection, but also to the so-called “overinterpretation”. “Efforts to raise awareness lead some individuals to describe unnecessarily mild and transient psychological distress as mental health problems that require reporting and treatment,” the researchers said. This increase in complaints, in turn, fuels new awareness initiatives.

So it will be a cyclical, upward process, which, according to the authors, justifies further empirical studies. Foulkes and Andrews conclude, “Careful research to understand how future awareness campaigns can reduce the incidence of overinterpretation is warranted here.”

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