The world is changing faster than our ability to adapt to it. As an expert in the field of psychology and an avid fan of science fiction and futurology, I can see some broad social and technological trends that are going to transform our understanding and experience of the future of mental health and mental illnesses. There have been a few articles written about the future of mental health treatment, and I might give my own opinions in, ahem, the future. But for now, I want to look at the next 50 years of mental illness.
Prediction 1: Humanity will Survive
Let me start by talking about the dire trends that I’m not super worried about. For one, I don’t subscribe to any particularly apocalyptic scenarios regarding overpopulation or unsustainable use of basic resources. In fact, there are solid indications that the rate of population growth is slowing. Despite what Thanos thinks, we are not heading for some massive Malthusian collapse.
I’m also not worried about World War III or a nuclear apocalypse. In fact, the world has grown significantly more peaceful year by year since World War II. If this seems totally wrong, that’s because this is one of the best examples of availability bias. Availability bias is the tendency to go to the most obvious examples of something when we’re estimating it. We have way higher access to information about war and atrocities. So when we’re estimating the global political climate, we pull big examples rather than trying to hold a weighted average of all countries’ statuses. Basically, we just think of the countries in the news, which of course are the ones at war.
The exception to this general confidence is global climate change. I don’t have a good feel for how that’s going to turn out. Hotter temperatures are bad for mental health, as are the traumatic impacts of more catastrophic weather events. Obviously, if we do experience a horrible environmental catastrophe or global thermonuclear war, we can expect this to have a slight negative effect on mental health. I just think these are pretty unlikely. The much more likely threat to our global mental health is the global robot uprising.
Prediction 2: Automation will sap our will to live.
Automation is coming for your job. It started 50 years ago with manufacturing. We see it happening for transportation, retail and service jobs. Soon enough it’ll be taking over skilled labor, and depending on where AI goes, white collar and so-called “mental labor” jobs may be next. What is going to happen to all of those displaced workers? No one really knows.
Current trends would lead us towards ever increasing levels of income inequality, as those with the means to own the automation systems or the skills for those few jobs immune to automation grow increasingly richer, and those without grow increasingly poorer. Income inequality is catastrophic for mental health, surprisingly both for the poor and the rich.
A potential solution to this problem may be Universal Basic Income. Basically, the benefits of automation don’t just go to the 1%, but are distributed more evenly among the 99%. It’s welfare for the majority. Psychologically, yeah this is better than having most people not pay for food or rent, but it’s still not great. Work has great benefits to your mental health – it instills a sense of purpose, it gives you a predictable routine, and it lets you socialize with others. There’s a saying that “The number 1 killer of the elderly is retirement,” and while I think heart disease would have something to say about that my point stands.
For me, the happy medium is that yes, everyone receives an income to live on but they are provided or assigned some meaningful work to spend their time on. Since machines will be completing most of the industrial, economic work, the people would probably all work on the public good. They would get their allotted income and oh shit I just accidentally invented communism.
Now, those of you stuck in your sucky jobs are probably arguing with me, saying work isn’t so great. Maybe instead of spending this freed up time working, you could spend it on your hobbies! Well, unfortunately…
Prediction 3: Our hobbies will make us miserable
This is especially a problem for nerds. Nerds are defined by their interests. Earlier, I hypothesized that being isolated by technology is one of the factors that is making nerds so anxious and depressed. The reason why is pretty understandable. In the time that our most advanced human piloted spacecraft went from looking like this:
Video games went from looking like this:
I know this is a contentious topic among my reader base, and there’s plenty of research also showing no harm or even benefits. Unlike this other monstrosity:
There’s been a bit of research that shows that social media can be harmful to mental health. The research is a little bit chicken-and-eggy: is the social media causing the depression, or is a depressed person more likely to morosely browse through Facebook excessively. Either way, it’s not a winning combination. And as quickly as video games are developing as a medium and an industry, social media is taking over even faster.
Predictions 2 and 3 together make a particularly potent 1-2 punch. Take away someone’s sense of meaning and socialization through losing their job, and replace it with physical isolation, low activity, and comparing yourself with others through video games and social media. But hey, if everyone else is depressed, too, at least you’re not seeing a bunch of happy smiling faces every time you go on the Facebook.
Prediction 4: New, Exciting Mental Illnesses!
If it wasn’t clear from my series of articles where I talk about the reasons why you don’t have X mental illness, I think psychology’s diagnostic system is a mess. Psychological diagnoses are based purely on symptom presentations, not causes or mechanisms or viable treatments. People end up with whole alphabets of diagnoses – BPD, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, WTF, BBQ – with overlapping symptoms, interlocking causes, and no guidance about what to do with them. This, I think, is due to change for the better.
Every few years the two big lists of mental health diagnoses – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and the International Classification of Diseases – come out with new editions. They incorporate changes every year.
Sometimes these are based on better understanding of the disorders, like changing the 4 separate “Autistic” disorders into an overarching, more granular “Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Sometimes these are societal changes, like removing homosexuality or gender identity disorder as mental illnesses.
Oddly, the field with the hottest research is still the one with the least diagnostic clarity. That is neuropsychology. Neurology and psychology are sibling sciences, and as such their offspring is a little messed up. Neuropsychological diagnoses are a complete joke. Person A can come in after years of cocaine abuse with behavior change, impulsivity, and difficulty with complicated instructions. Person B could have an autoerotic asphyxiation accident and suddenly he can’t recognize shapes, draw a cube, or read. What diagnoses do these two very different individuals have? Mild neurocognitive disorder.
This is bound to change both because it has to, and because there’s good money in it. Psychologists make good money identifying and treating these conditions, publishers make good money (well, for publishers) creating the tools to identify conditions. Pharmaceutical companies are making inroads into improving neuroplasticity, so they’re going to be interesting in increasing the scope of conditions that improved neuroplasticity is needed for.
If this sounds fatalistic or paranoid, it’s not. As a psychologist, I sort of have to believe that the brain and the mind are different, but I don’t think they’re separate. Bringing the physical-medical field and the social-psychological field together benefits both. It’s a beautiful thing.