Determinants of Mental Health

Having a mental illness can make it harder to get a job, do well in school, maintain healthy relationships, keep up with daily tasks, and stay safe. But, with early diagnosis and consistent treatment, including medication and psychotherapy, most people can reduce the impact of their condition and find a measure of control over it.

Researchers are still trying to understand what causes mental illnesses. But we know that some risk factors — like having a blood relative with a mental health condition or experiencing trauma as a child — can increase your chances of developing one, while other factors — such as the environment and your experiences — can lower your chances. Brain chemistry also plays a role. When there’s an imbalance of neurotransmitters (naturally occurring chemicals that carry signals between nerve cells), it can trigger symptoms like depression and anxiety.

Many people who need psychiatric care don’t receive it. A huge gap exists between the number of people who have a mental health condition and the few psychiatric beds available worldwide. In 2019, over 13.1 million people globally were classified as having a mental health disorder that substantially interfered with their ability to work, study or socialize. The largest numbers of people with such disorders were adolescents and young adults.

People in low- and middle-income countries struggle the most with mental health conditions. They often have limited access to effective treatments and support services, and face stigma, discrimination and violations of their rights. Despite commitments to the WHO’s comprehensive mental health action plan, progress has been slow.

The determinants of mental health are complex and interact at different levels, from local threats that heighten risk for individuals, families and communities to global challenges that put whole populations at risk, such as economic crises, disease outbreaks, forced displacement and the climate crisis. Each of these can increase or decrease a person’s resilience to and recovery from mental illness.

In addition to advancing research and treatment, Harvard’s faculty, students and staff work to raise awareness and build capacity in the world to prevent and treat mental health issues. For example, the Global Mental Health for All Lab is using digital technology and task-sharing to scale up interventions for prevention and care of mental health problems in diverse global contexts.

The CNN/KFF survey was conducted online between July 28 through August 9 among 2,004 Americans ages 18 and older, who were randomly selected using probability-based methods. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. This is the third year KFF has conducted the national poll on the state of mental health in America. For more information, visit the CNN/KFF website. *The term “mental illness” is used throughout this article to refer to any condition that affects a person’s thinking, emotions or behavior and impacts their quality of life. It includes but is not limited to disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.