What is the Most Effective Treatment for Mental Disorders?

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What is the Most Effective Treatment for Mental Disorders?

Jim Windell


           According to the World Health Organization, one in every eight people worldwide lives with a mental disorder. Poor mental health costs the world economy approximately $2.5 trillion each year. And that cost is expected to increase to $6 trillion by 2030.

            In the U.S., 21% of adults experienced mental illness in 2020; that represents more than 52 million people. One in  20 American adults experienced a serious mental illness in 2020 and 16.5% of U.S. youth aged 6 to 17 experienced a mental health disorder in 2016.

            Given these kinds of numbers, not only in the U.S. but worldwide, there is an urgent need for effective mental health treatment. Yet there are certainly far too few psychologists and other mental health counselors to meet the needs of all those with a mental health problem.

            But what if there was a more effective and dramatic treatment for mental health disorders than psychotherapy or counseling? What if there was a treatment that lasted a few weeks and almost everyone suffering from some mental health condition could afford?

            A new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine may have found that is such a treatment. The article is a review and is the most comprehensive to date, encompassing 97 reviews, 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. The study is the first to evaluate the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in all adult populations.

            Lead researcher, Dr. Ben Singh, Research Fellow at the University of South Australia, says physical activity must be prioritized to better manage the growing cases of mental health conditions. “Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment,” Dr Singh says.

           “Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement. Higher intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects when compared to short and mid-duration bursts.”

           Dr. Singh points out that their study found that all types of physical activity and exercise were beneficial, including aerobic exercise such as walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. “Importantly,” he says, “the research shows that it doesn’t take much for exercise to make a positive change to your mental health.”

           Specifically, the research found that exercise is more effective than medicines to manage mental health. And it found that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counseling or medications for managing depression.Also,the review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most the effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can make a change. The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.

            Professor Carol Maher, senior researcher at the University South Australia, says the study is the first of its kind looking at the effects of physical exercise on such things as depression, anxiety and psychological distress in all adult populations. “Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way to for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders,” she says. “We hope this review will underscore the need for physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a mainstay approach for managing depression and anxiety.” 

            To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Singh, B., Olds, T., Curtis, R., Dumuid, D., Virgara, R., Watson, A., ... & Maher, C. (2023). Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2022-106195

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