Mental Health and Cognition

May is Mental Health Awareness Month: What’s cognition got to do with it?

This article provides information about ongoing scientific research and does not provide any medical advice.

This month is mental health awareness month, so we're asking, What effect has the pandemic had on mental health? What effect does mental health have on cognition? And, how does mental health awareness month help?

Finland is one among several countries with high rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that are consistently ranked among the happiest in the world by the annual World Happiness Report. The report takes into account various elements of wellbeing, including mutual trust, safety, confidence in government, access to education and healthcare, and self-realization. All of these are, in one way or another, connected to mental health. And while SAD is prevalent in these northern nations, Finland (#1 in the happiness rankings for the sixth year in a row), Denmark (#2), and Iceland (#4) have robust healthcare systems that include mental health treatment. Not only do these countries’ policies make mental health treatments accessible to all, but they de-stigmatize them.

Countries around the world have in recent years come to understand how stigma plays a role in mental health challenges and are working to undo negative associations with accessing mental health treatment. Among them is the United States where May is Mental Health Awareness Month and which, in 2021, is more relevant to many of us than ever before.

Over a year ago, when the worldwide pandemic arrived, it threatened our health and left 1 in 3 Americans with the loss of someone to covid-19. In many cases that grief has been compounded by having had to work harder or not being able to work enough. Others have struggled to balance additional demands at home, and still others have languished as their lives were put on hold. All of these scenarios come with mental health challenges, but some may be harder to recognize than others. And, the idea that “someone else has it worse” can influence our decision to seek mental health treatment. Mental Health Awareness Month is intended to overcome the reluctance to care for our psyches as well as our bodies which are, after all, intimately connected.

Loneliness has soared during the pandemic, affecting young people in particular. It can be difficult to solve for, since it may seem surmountable through willpower; that is, it may be perceived as a weakness to admit to feelings of loneliness. But the feeling of being socially isolated is associated with a complex set of effects, some of which are mutually reinforcing and which may need a professional to help sort out. For instance, loneliness is closely associated with depression, which “can impair your attention and memory, as well as your information processing and decision-making skills. It can also lower your cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt your goals and strategies to changing situations) and executive functioning (the ability to take all the steps to get something done),” according to the Harvard Health blog. And, the more isolated a person is, the more they are likely to perceive social threats even where there are none, like being laughed at or disrespected by strangers. Loneliness can lead to a self-protective frame of mind that, ironically, may further isolate a person.

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