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Obesity: the main cause of the mental health epidemic?

Updated: Jun 30

By Maria Lazar

In recent times, mental health has been the topic on everyone’s lips. With the heightened popularity of social media, everyone from your average Joe to A-list celebrities has detailed their mental health challenges and how they coped with them on different platforms. The general talk about mental health has been institutionalized, with many schools and corporations now offering days off for mental health illness, similar to days off for physical illness.

But does society suffer from a mental health epidemic? According to the Mental Health Foundation, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health problems in the UK. In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression - a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%). In 2021, it was estimated that around 8.2 million people in England alone experienced anxiety disorders, while 2.7 million people experienced depression.

As depression and anxiety levels continue to rise, more and more people are left wondering ‘What could be the leading cause behind this?’. Some physical health statistics may infer an answer. Side by side, the statistics of physical health compared to mental health show an inversely proportional increase. If life expectancy has improved considerably over the past few years, mental health has been deteriorating at an alarming rate.

Healthy life expectancy at birth

However, the picture changes drastically when the overall health of a person is taken into consideration. According to the Office of national statistics, British people who reported their health as ‘very good’ or ‘good’ had much higher levels of overall life satisfaction than those whose reported health was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. “Of those that considered themselves to be in very good health, 37.3% rated their life satisfaction as very high, compared with 11.1% of those that reported they were in very bad health”. In short, people’s mental health is connected more to their physical health at that moment, rather than their overall longevity.

Many health professionals have theorized that our quality of life is heavily impacted by our weight. In addition to the possible health risks it poses, obesity makes it more difficult for people to engage in physical activities which connect people with nature, such as long walks, treks, or hiking.

In the UK, obesity has become an increasing problem, with almost three-quarters of the population classified as either overweight or obese by the NHS. Studying the graphs more closely, the connection becomes clear: mental health issues begin to rise around 2016, just 4 years after obesity has increased considerably.

The connection between mental health and obesity has previously been made by Dorothea Vafiadis, the Director of NCOA's Center for Healthy Aging, in her article entitled How Excess Weight Impacts Our Mental and Emotional Health. Ms. Vafiadis goes into more depth on the relationship between weight and mental health, even stating: ‘Adults with excess weight had a 55% higher risk of developing depression over their lifetime compared to people that did not struggle with obesity’.

As obesity rates continue to rise, mental health is on a continuous decline. There is hope that more and more medical professionals will study the link between these two factors of life quality and more and more research will be conducted as a result. The main advice for people struggling with either one of these issues has already been established firmly in medicine: increase time spent outdoors, especially in nature-filled landscapes.

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