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Dangerous Stress Plagues Young Adults, Study Finds
Serious psychological distress (SPD) is a concept that doctors and researchers use to gauge the cumulative effects of everyday stress on the mental and physical health of the individual. The American Psychiatric Association uses measurements of psychological distress as part of the process for diagnosing a range of mental disorders, and current evidence indicates that SPD plays an important role in the onset of illnesses such as major depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and bipolar disorder. It also apparently plays a significant role in the development of a number of potentially debilitating or fatal physical conditions.
Serious Psychological Distress Basics
Serious psychological distress is not an independently diagnosable mental health condition. Instead, it acts as what mental health professionals call a “nonspecific indicator” for other, diagnosable mental disorders, which means that it increases the risks for those disorders. The primary tool used for measuring SPD in the U.S. is a short survey called the K6 scale, which asks a series of six questions regarding an individual’s mental outlook in the last 30 days. Doctors also sometimes use a longer survey called the K10 scale. The first question on the K6 scale focuses on the presence of psychologically harmful states of mind such as hopelessness, worthlessness, restlessness, nervousness and unrelieved depression. The second question asks the individual to compare his or her mental state in the last 30 days to his or her usual mental state. The next two questions ask the individual to detail how much his or level of distress interferes with the ability to work or engage in a normal routine. Question five asks the individual whether he or she sought treatment from a physician or mental health professional, while the last questions ask the individual to gauge the influence of physical problems on his or her mental state.
Impact on Mental and Physical Health
In a report published in 2008, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) detailed some of the known figures regarding the impact of serious psychological distress on mental health in the U.S. The authors of the report concluded that 10 percent of all U.S. adults experienced SPD during the year covered by the report; almost 45 percent of the affected individuals sought out some form of mental health care for symptoms related to their distress. When the figures were sorted by age, the highest rates for serious psychological distress occurred among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 (roughly 18 percent), while the lowest rates occurred in adults over the age of 50 (7 percent). Interestingly, these patterns reversed when it came to seeking treatment. Adults 50 or older affected by SPD were the most likely to seek treatment, while adults between 18 and 25 were the least likely to visit physicians or mental health professionals.
In a study published in 2007 in the journal Advance Data, another team of federal researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined serious psychological distress in general, as well as SPD’s consequences for physical health. Unlike the SAMSHA researchers, they concluded that the highest rates for SPD appear in middle-aged individuals between 45 and 60. They also concluded that adults with higher-than-average risks for damaging levels of psychological distress include women, people below the poverty line, unmarried individuals and people who don’t graduate from high school.
Physical disorders linked in the study to people affected by SPD include strokes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and arthritis; all of these conditions appear in association with serious psychological distress more often than they appear in other circumstances. The authors of the study also concluded that people with SPD smoke cigarettes more often than the general population and also have higher chances of gaining enough weight to qualify for an obesity diagnosis. In addition, people affected by serious psychological distress tend to develop unusually debilitating forms of the health problems under consideration, and also have an increased tendency to visit general physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists.
A third study, published in 2013 in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, links psychological distress and accompanying symptoms of depression and anxiety to substantial declines in workplace productivity. Factors that help trigger the onset of damaging psychological distress in these circumstances include a workplace environment that places a heavy burden on employees’ emotional reserves, and a workplace environment that either fails to provide its employees with the resources needed to complete assigned objectives, or places contradictory demands on its employees.