What matters most when it comes to predicting and preventing mental distress?

Data from the Global Mind Project shows that mental wellbeing is declining with each successively younger generation. Today over 50% of young adults aged 18-24 experience mental distress. This trend, which is apparent around the world, has created an urgent need to better understand the causes and predictors of mental distress. What’s more, it’s imperative that we try and prevent issues before they arise, not only because of the pressures on mental healthcare resources, but also because not experiencing mental distress in the first place is far preferable to experiencing distress even if you do have access to some kind of treatment.

When it comes to trying to take a preventative approach to mental distress we first need to know where to prioritize. This means we have to understand how different social predictors – whether that be lifestyle habits or life experiences – differentially impact mental wellbeing and which ones are most important. This helps guide what we should tackle first and how we might go about making a difference to these alarming statistics.

At Sapien Labs, we’ve recently published a paper that starts to untangle this. In this research study, we worked to understand how different lifestyle and life experience factors impact our mental wellbeing as well as identifying which ones are more important. This helps tell us which factors, if addressed, could support preventative strategies at the population level and stop the development of mental distress before it arises.


How did we do this?

First, let’s define a couple important terms. In research, a predictor is a factor that is used to assess the risk of a certain outcome (in this case mental wellbeing status). Predictors help us make connections between outcomes and their causes. That is, predictors let us analyze to what extent you are at risk for mental distress based on the presence of a given trait, experience, or habit. When we discuss social or contextual predictors, it is important to note that this is in contrast to the more conventionally studied medical or biological predictors for mental health (such as genetic predisposition). Social predictors can be boiled down to lifestyle, life experience, and demographics like age and gender.

Fortunately, through the Global Mind Project, enough data has been gathered on both mental distress and people’s life context to begin to analyze what social predictors are most common among people who deal with mental health challenges.

Unlike previous studies, the Global Mind Project takes a holistic approach to mental distress. It does not isolate for a singular predictor at a time, but instead records over 120 demographic and social factors and uses machine learning to determine their relative influence. The Global Mind Project is also unique because it does not look for predictors of a certain mental illness, like depression or anxiety, but rather overall mental health distress (as measured by the Mental Health Quotient). All in all, everyone has a social and demographic profile and this study allows us to assess which profiles are most likely to be at risk of mental distress. With this understanding, we will know both which populations and profiles to target for intervention, and which preventative measures will be most effective.


So, what did we find?

When we just look at things from an overall perspective, one striking thing we found is that simply by looking at people’s social and demographic profile, we could successfully identify 80% of people struggling with their mental wellbeing and 85% of those severely struggling (±15%).

When looking at the hierarchy of different factors we studies, the most influential predictors for mental distress were rarely socializing in person and hardly ever getting a good night’s sleep (which are both considered lifestyle factors). Next in the hierarchy of predictors were rarely exercising, followed by the experience of a high number of lifetime traumas and adversities (such as sexual abuse and cyberbullying), and finally drug use (sedatives and sleeping pills) and unemployment. All in all, this study has successfully set the groundwork for creating a hierarchy of mental wellbeing’s social predictors.

When you look deeper into the data, however, more questions arise. While traumas, adversities, sleep, exercise, substance and unemployment predict mental health status with over 90% accuracy, they can only explain 67% of mental distress among young adults (aged 18-24).

This demographic difference leaves us wondering what explains the missing 20-30% of predictive power among Gen Z, if not the factors outlined in the study? Factors with the highest potential to predict mental distress among Gen Z are early exposure to smartphones, ultra-processed foods, and environmental toxins. Young people are typically most susceptible to larger societal shifts in culture and lifestyle like these because, unlike adults, they are exposed to these changes during critical developmental periods. People in the 18-24 age group, for example, were the first generation to grow up fully in an internet-immersed environment.


What do these results tell us?

First and foremost, the fact that 80% of people struggling with their mental wellbeing could be identified by their demographic and social characteristics suggests that our mental wellbeing is, in essence, a reflection of our life experience. If we ignore this conclusion, we will continue down the path of over-medication and “symptom whack-a-mole” that has proven to be ineffective.

But if we accept this conclusion, it lays the groundwork for substantial change both individually and societally at the root cause level. Individually, certain forms of mental distress (that are often diagnosed as depression or anxiety) can be addressed at their roots through lifestyle changes. Societally, an understanding of the demographic and social predictors of mental distress allows us to target particular populations or environmental factors for intervention.

Overall, these findings not only suggest that our mental health crisis is best addressed by tackling root causes and social predictors but also that our social relationships and sleep are among the top drivers of our mental wellbeing outcomes. As the Global Mind Project progresses and we explore other factors such as ultra-processed food consumption and age of first smartphone ownership, we can also start to unravel the unidentified factors that are additionally driving mental distress in younger adults.

Bala JNewson JJThiagarajan TC. Hierarchy of demographic and social determinants of mental health: analysis of cross-sectional survey data from the Global Mind Project.