Climate Change, Income Inequality, and Rising Mental Health Problems

Shifting conceptions of “madness” account for some of the increase in mental disorders, but young people also face distressing environments.


A recent article published in the International Review of Psychiatry explores the “concepts, practices, and discourses” around mental health that have emerged since the mid-20th century, following from French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work. The authors, philosopher Derek Bolton and social psychiatrist Dinesh Bhugra, argue that there has been a shift in the relationship between “us” and them” – or the “sane” versus the “insane.” They also discuss possible causal factors related to the continuing rise of mental health problems in western countries, such as distress around climate change and income inequality.

“Our aim in this paper is to consider some of the profound socio-cultural changes around mental health from the mid-twentieth century, implications for the cultural imaginary of merging the places of what used to be called ‘madness,’ on the one hand, and ‘our mentally normal life’ on the other,” Bolton and Bhugra write.

As rates of suicide and “mental health problems” rise in western democracies and as new social and mental health-related “epidemics” are announced seemingly every year, researchers are scrambling to discover the causes.

Many have pointed to external factors such as income inequality/economic insecurity, pollution, social fragmentation, and other environmental and social determinants of health.

The current article picks up where the French philosopher Michel Foucault left off in the mid-20th century, in his critical historical analysis of how western societies understand, section off, and treat those deemed “mentally ill.” The authors trace social shifts in understanding who is considered “mad” or changes in the “representations of mental health problems.” They also discuss some of the likely causal factors affecting younger generations regarding rising rates of mental distress.

Pointing to the difficulties of measuring something like increasing rates of “mental illness,” the authors suggest that it can be tricky to distinguish between increased reporting (or diagnosis) and “real rises in disorder rates.”

This is especially the case since the mid-20th century because of what is sometimes referred to as diagnostic creep. Historically, the “mentally insane” were sectioned off as a small and potentially dangerous minority. In contemporary times, mental health problems are often considered to be common—affecting many of “us,” rather than only “them.”

The increasing rates get more complicated when factoring in increased help-seeking, better “self- or services detection,” and “better access to service provision.”

The authors believe it is likely that both changes in the culture around mental health and “real disorders” are to blame. Representations of mental health and mental health services have expanded, leading to debates around stigmatizing terminology and how we should conceive of “mental illness.” On top of that, they discuss several sociopolitical and economic factors that may explain increased rates of anxiety, depression, and other conditions.

They include potentially distressing external factors, including breakdowns in social cohesion due to cultural conflict (such as between conservatism and liberalism), increasing intergenerational wealth inequalities, and anxiety over climate change. The authors believe that these factors may be especially distressing for young people, such as those belonging to Generation Z.

The authors state that although cultural conflict is certainly nothing new, it is likely more “in-your-public-face” because of social media and the increasing “public profile of populism.”

“We intend to do no more than raise the question: what is it like to grow up in such a world, as a child or young teenager, and what is it like in such a world, for older adolescents and young adults, to try to imagine and work towards your future goals.
Hypotheses worth considering are that they may struggle with the questions: Who and what are they to believe? How are they to know what is going to happen and how to plan their future, ends, and means accordingly? To the extent that there are disagreements over fundamental matters between vocal and active groups, both influencing events, both ‘sides’ are likely to find what is going on hard to understand, unpredictable and therefore stressful.”

They also discuss the evidence for a relationship between economic insecurity, wealth inequality, and anxiety. The 2008 economic crash, for example, has been linked to poorer health. Downward economic trends can negatively impact young peoples’ expectations for future stability and motivation related to career and life planning.

Young people are less likely to own property than their parents or have stable housing, less likely to have well-paid work, and are more likely to have insecure work positions such as zero-hour-contracts. Parents can add to these anxieties by stressing over their children’s academic and professional success.

Additionally, stress around climate change is shown to be a major concern for members of Generation Z (age 18-25). Climate change was the most cited global issue in a poll of 11,000 members of Gen Z across 22 countries, at 41%, while pollution was the second most cited global issue, at 36%.

The authors conclude:

“Since the mid-twentieth century, practically and symbolically marked by the closing of the asylums, concepts, discourse, and practices around mental health have been adjusting to ‘mental health problems’ becoming in and among ‘us.’ This has involved uncertainty and controversy in terminology, prevalence, case definition, and distribution of expertise.
[…] In addition, over recent decades, there have been increasingly evident fractures in social solidarity, interacting with and exacerbating specific socio-political-economic-environmental stressors on younger generations, including increasing intergenerational wealth inequalities, and accelerating worries about climate change.”



Bolton, D., & Bhugra, D. (April 29, 2020). Changes in society and young people’s mental health. International Review of Psychiatry, 1-8. (Link)

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Micah Ingle, PhD
Micah is part-time faculty in psychology at Point Park University. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology: Consciousness and Society from the University of West Georgia. His interests include humanistic, critical, and liberation psychologies. He has published work on empathy, individualism, group therapy, and critical masculinities. Micah has served on the executive boards of Division 32 of the American Psychological Association (Society for Humanistic Psychology) as well as Division 24 (Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology). His current research focuses on critiques of the western individualizing medical model, as well as cultivating alternatives via humanities-oriented group and community work.


  1. Reactions are not mental illnesses.
    We set up systems for failures. We are not superheroes.
    If I cannot do math, and am not strong physically, and perhaps
    not as agile, or able to study well, I will most likely
    not be able to keep up with a fast paced, money driven
    world. If I combine that with not being attractive, or
    perhaps have learned that I am a failure, the feelings
    that go along with this are not “illnesses”, nor “disorders”

    Our surroundings, our environments are not conducive to having the majority
    be “successful” at least in a few areas.

    It’s inconceivable to think that people’s reactions or unhappiness are being reduced
    to disorders or illness.
    Nothing has changed since the beginning of time and is steadily getting worse.
    Nothing short of rebellion and revolutions will change it.

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  2. Basically, this article emphasizes that more and more since the mid-twentieth century, “normality” has become “abnormality.” Why? One obvious reason is there is money in that type of insidious approach. I could go on and really would be blah, blah, blah, etc. However, one point to be made is when “normality” becomes “abnormality” no one really has to take responsibility for anything, do they? Thank you.

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  3. My impression of the source piece is of intellectual sponginess. Foucault was known for this, too. I see Foucault as one in a long line of intellectuals who hoped to use their theories to normalize their sub-optimum behaviors while categorizing more and more normal behaviors as illnesses.

    To ignore the fact that mental illness has become big business, in the same way that physical illness has, is to ignore one of the most obvious situations in society today. Some marginal group dreams up some problems and sells them, and their “solutions” to the public as real – using “experts” or whatever – in the hopes of making some money or driving some peole crazy.

    Then to point (quite conveniently it seems to me) to Climate Change while barely mentioning the slow creep into our lives of criminal operations like war, drug pushing, human trafficking, the widening wealth gap, and many other less overt but just as morally questionable practices is at best horrendously shallow. The biggest driver of mental and emotional stress are the pressures brought to bear on us by the criminally insane. To ignore this obvious fact at this point in history is to practically confess that you are being part of that problem.

    From what I have seen, we are going through a period when no one in the academic community who actually has something intelligent to say will be able to get published. We are expected to take drivel like this paper seriously. Sooner or later this will have to come to an end!

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  4. More than anything, this highlights the subjective nature of mental illness. If I actually believed the hyper-exaggerated climate catastrophizing, if I ignored that, economically, the world was never better off than it is now and, instead, took seriously the ideas that, on the one hand, I’m a “loser” if I don’t make X amount of money and, on the other, that I’m being exploited by evil capitalists, I’d be going insane too.

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