Global Mental Well-Being Report Card Shows Little Progress

by Denis Storey
March 12, 2024 at 2:19 PM UTC

Sapien Labs’ fourth annual report reveals an enduring global decline in mental well-being since the onset of the pandemic.

Clinical relevance: Sapien Labs’ fourth annual report reveals an enduring global decline in mental well-being since the onset of the pandemic.

  • Researchers used a Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) to measure mental well-being across 71 countries, showing no significant improvement since 2021.
  • Younger generations, particularly those under 35, experienced the most significant decline in mental well-being during the pandemic, attributed to factors like early smartphone ownership, ultra-processed food consumption, and deteriorating family connections.
  • Wealthier countries like the United Kingdom and Australia rank lower in mental well-being, while African and Latin American countries tend to top the rankings.

The damage we’ve all suffered since the start of the pandemic seems to be enduring. According to Sapien Labs’ fourth annual “Mental State of the World Report,” the pronounced drop in mental well-being that swept across the globe alongside the virus between 2019 and 2020 shows little sign of recovery.

“The insights in this report paint a worrying post-pandemic picture and highlight the urgent need to better understand the drivers of our collective mental well-being,” Sapien Labs Founder and Chief Scientist Tara Thiagarajan said in a press release.

Measuring Mental Well-Being

The report, which covered 419,175 Internet-enabled participants across 71 countries, eschewed metrics such as happiness or satisfaction. Instead, the researchers relied on the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), “which captures perceptions of 47 aspects of mental capability and functioning on a life impact scale.”

As a result, the study’s authors tracked mental well-being as it “inherently reflects an individual’s sense of how their inner state impacts their ability to function within their life context rather than an absolute of human mental function.”

The researchers had participants take an anonymous online survey that produced the MHQ score. This score placed participants on a scale anywhere between “distressed” to “thriving.” In addition to measuring an individual’s well-being, the score also better evaluates someone’s functional capacity.

Global Mental Health Remains Stagnant

“The average MHQ score across the 71 countries measured in 2023 was 65 on the 300-point MHQ scale,” the researchers wrote. “Across the spectrum of mental well-being, 27 percent of respondents were Distressed or Struggling (MHQ scores of below 0), while 38 percent were Succeeding or Thriving (MHQ scores above 100). This is nearly identical to the global figures from last year.”

In fact, the numbers remain largely unchanged since 2021. This suggests that while our collective mental health hasn’t worsened, it hasn’t improved, either.

Younger Generations Suffering

Younger generations, particularly those under age 35, suffered the steepest declines in mental well-being during the pandemic, tumbling between 14 percent and 17 percent.

Major factors that threaten the mental well-being of the younger survey respondents, as indicated in earlier research, include:

  • Smartphone ownership at a younger age. “For example, 74 percent of female respondents aged 18-24 who got their first smartphone at age 6 had MHQ scores that fell within a Distressed or Struggling range. This decreased to 61 percent for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 10, and 52 percent for those who acquired their first smartphone at age 15.”
  • Ultra-processed food consumption. “For example, we found that over half of those who eat ultra-processed food daily are Distressed or Struggling with their mental well-being, compared to just 18% of those who rarely or never consume ultra-processed food, an almost 3-fold increase. 
  • Deteriorating family connections. we found that 10% of 18-24 year olds did not get along with any of their family and preferred not to see them compared to only 3% of the oldest generation. At the same time, the risk of mental health challenges in adulthood is four times lower if you have close family relationships.

Notably, especially given their great health threat, those over 65 saw little to no drop in their mental well-being. 

As in previous years, several African and Latin American countries topped the country rankings. Wealthier countries, on the other hand, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, rank near the bottom.

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