Could Yoga Be the Game-Changer in the Global Mental Health Epidemic?

In a dimly lit room, the weight of the world seems to press down from all sides. The walls feel like they’re closing in, each inch of space suffocating, as if the air itself is thickening. Thoughts race uncontrollably, each one darker than the last, spiralling into an abyss of despair and anxiety. The bottle of pills on the nightstand beckons as a quick escape, while the phone buzzes with ignored calls and messages from concerned loved ones. It’s a struggle, a silent battle fought behind closed doors, where even the simplest tasks like getting out of bed become monumental challenges.

This is a glimpse into the life of someone grappling with mental health issues, a life that many might not see but is a harrowing reality for some.

The narrative above is not an isolated incident but a reflection of a global crisis that is reaching alarming proportions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 300 million cases of mental disorders are on a rising trend worldwide, with 1 in every 8 people living with a mental disorder. The situation is particularly dire in the United States, where more than one in five adults, or 57.8 million people, live with a mental illness. The prevalence is even higher among females, with 27.2% affected as compared to 18.1% of males.

Adding another layer to this complex issue is the prevalence of substance use disorders. In 2021, 19.7 million American adults battled a substance use disorder, representing 7.1% of the adult population. Almost 74% of these adults struggled with an alcohol use disorder, while about 38% battled an illicit drug use disorder. Disturbingly, one out of every eight adults struggled with both alcohol and drug use disorders simultaneously, and 8.5 million American adults suffered from both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder, known as co-occurring disorders.

Suicide, often the tragic culmination of untreated or poorly managed mental health issues, is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2021 alone, 48,183 lives were lost to suicide, translating to an age-adjusted rate of 14.04 per 100,000 people. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, with a CDC study revealing a 10.5% increase in suicide rates between 2019 and 2020.

The tragedy of mental health issues is further underscored by the lives of celebrities we’ve lost, individuals who seemingly had it all—fame, success, and wealth. Robin Williams, the beloved comedian and actor, took his own life in 2014 after battling severe depression and anxiety. Chester Bennington, the lead singer of Linkin Park, died by suicide in 2017, having openly discussed his struggles with depression and substance abuse. Avicii, the Swedish DJ and record producer, also died by suicide in 2018 after grappling with mental health issues and the pressures of fame. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and television host, took his own life in 2018, despite his outwardly adventurous and fulfilling life.

While mental health issues are a global and national crisis, they also hit close to home for the Indian-American community. According to recent statistics, 1 in 5 Indian Americans experience mental illness, aligning closely with the national average of 1 in 5 adults. The most common mental illnesses among Indian Americans are anxiety disorders (15.3%), mood disorders (13.6%), and substance use disorders (11.3%). However, what is particularly concerning is that only 38.4% of Indian Americans with mental illness received treatment in 2020, compared to 43.7% of white Americans. This disparity highlights the unique challenges faced by Indian Americans, including cultural stigmas and barriers to accessing mental health services.

Building on the unique challenges faced by the Indian-American community, it’s worth noting that solutions may lie in our own cultural heritage. Yoga, a practice deeply ingrained in Indian culture, has now gained a global imprint, including in America. However, while most of the focus in America on yoga is geared toward physical flexibility and fitness, many are unaware of its profound impact on mental well-being. Originating as a holistic approach to health, yoga is not just about physical postures but also includes practices like meditation that are designed to bring mental clarity and emotional balance.

This emphasis on a holistic approach is particularly relevant in light of a recent Time article that highlighted some concerning trends in mental health care. Despite increasing mental health awareness and therapy usage, mental health metrics in the U.S. continue to worsen. The article questions the efficacy of psychiatric diagnoses and treatments and suggests a need for a more holistic approach. This underscores the importance of exploring alternative methods like yoga and meditation, which offer a more rounded approach to mental health, addressing not just the symptoms but the root causes of mental and emotional distress.

The benefits of yoga and meditation are not just anecdotal or rooted in ancient wisdom; they are increasingly being validated by modern science. A review published in Psychiatry International synthesizes current research on the efficacy of yoga as an integrative therapy for various psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The review suggests that yoga can help reduce symptoms above and beyond the effects achieved by standard pharmacological treatments alone.

Similarly, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has published a digest recommending meditation, yoga, and relaxation with imagery for routine use for common conditions like anxiety and mood disorders. Medical News Today also supports this, stating that yoga and meditation appear to have a positive effect on both the central nervous system and the immune system, improving an individual’s overall sense of well-being.

Yoga Journal has published an article emphasizing the endless benefits of meditation, particularly mantras for anxiety and deep relaxation techniques like yoga nidra. BJPsych Advances discusses the clinical usefulness of yoga for mental disorders, providing insights into the neurobiological mechanisms and the latest evidence base for the use of yoga in psychiatric practice.

The International Journal of Yoga also corroborates these findings, stating that yoga and meditation can help reduce symptoms of many psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms, above and beyond the effects achieved by standard pharmacological treatments alone.

The financial toll of mental health in the U.S. is staggering, amounting to $193 billion annually, which eclipses the combined costs of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Moreover, for every $2 spent on mental health treatment, the economy loses $1 in productivity. In this high-cost landscape, yoga, and meditation stand out as economically sensible choices. These practices require minimal investment—just a quiet space and a few minutes. Yet, their mental and physical benefits are scientifically proven.

In the dimly lit corners of our minds, where despair and anxiety often hold sway, there exists an untapped reservoir of peace and clarity. Yoga and meditation, ancient practices deeply woven into Indian culture, offer a bridge to these tranquil spaces within us. As we’ve seen, the scientific community is increasingly recognizing their efficacy, not as a replacement but as a valuable complement to existing treatments.

The mental health crisis is not just a collection of statistics; it’s a lived reality for many, often hidden but profoundly impactful. The financial burden it places on individuals and society is immense, yet here we have tools that are virtually cost-free and scientifically validated.

So, as the walls seem to close in and the weight of the world feels unbearable, remember that the key to relief might just be a few deep breaths away.

American Academy for Yoga in Medicine is conducting a webinar on Mental Health on 30th September, with expert physicians on how Yoga can be beneficial for people with mental health issues, or for anyone who wants to prevent the onset of such issues. It’s not just about bending your body; it’s about expanding your mind and enriching your soul. Are you ready to explore this transformative journey within?

(The author is a Cardiologist, Meditator, and Yogi based in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. He is the Founder and Chairman of the American Academy for Yoga in Medicine. He is the Editor in Chief; The Principle and Practice of Yoga in Cardiovascular Medicine.)

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