Our mental health has suffered over the past 80 years. The causes are complex, but it’s exhausting to live in a society where asking for help equals failure.
Anxiety and depression are isolating illnesses, but sufferers are hardly alone: according to a new book, the number of young Americans who’ve struggled with these mental health issues over the last 80 years has increased steadily. Sociologist Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before, told New York magazine this week that her research had led her to conclude that “modern life is not good for mental health”. By measuring the frequency of symptoms associated with anxiety and depression – poor sleep, memory problems, concentration problems, and difficulty learning – Twenge came to believe that our forefathers and mothers were much happier that we are today. Or, at least, that they were less depressed and anxious.
Mental illness is a result of misery, yet still we stigmatise it
This upswing in mental illness doesn’t surprise me. I am one of those young Americans. Or rather, I was: 20 years ago, I was first diagnosed with and treated for major depression. I was 14. I’m less young, now, but I know that it’s likely that I’ll always be depressive. As far as problems go, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world: in the last two decades, I’ve learned to manage my illness well enough. Like my hay fever, it flares up only on occasion, and for the most part, I can deal with it and move on without the symptoms causing too much disruption to the rest of my life. But in this, I realize, I am very fortunate: to have had the resources required to get the help I need and have needed. They are resources that too many young Americans lack.
I’m not afraid to write about my depression, but that’s in large part because I know that it’s unlikely that my admission of illness will affect my ability to make a living in the profession that I’ve chosen. This is an exception. Too many Americans – young ones, in particular – have too little access to good mental health treatment, whether because their health insurance does not adequately cover it, they can’t take time off work to seek it, or they feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek intervention. If modern life is unkind to our mental health, it’s no doubt in part because so many young people fear that admission of vulnerability will affect their employment, or their relationships, at a time when their futures are already far less clear than those of their parents.
Twenge theorizes that demographic shifts toward people leading more independent, less family-oriented lives has led to the upswing in unhappiness. I don’t want to give up the freedom that we’ve gained – in particular, since I am a woman, a retrograde movement towards traditional roles and expectations would make me very grumpy – but it does seem a shame that our freedom to talk about our feelings, and show real empathy to other people when they share theirs, has not kept pace with other kinds of forward thinking. I don’t think that you have to live in a single dwelling with your parents and grandparents to feel companionship and love, but it is emotionally exhausting to operate in a social milieu where we project the best sides of our lives through social media, but revile real vulnerability. There’s a dark space between the ever-mounting expectations of the everlasting American dream – to be better, to have more – and the actual truth: life is always a bit disappointing. Perhaps our ancestors were less burdened by disappointment because they weren’t socialized to expect as much.
Twenge notes that reports of the symptoms of anxiety and depression plateaued in the 90s, when SSRI drugs like Prozac came on to the market. Between 8% and 10% of Americans take prescription antidepressants, and it’s a good option for many people. But is it a cure? In my experience, medication has been very helpful in treating the worst symptoms of depression. However, none of the doctors who prescribed antidepressants to me for the first decade and a half that I took them initiated any in-depth conversations about what caused, or exacerbated, my illness (the closest was a British GP who asked me a series of question to determine whether I was depressed; I scored 100%, he reviewed the results, remarked, “I don’t think you’re depressed,” and then wrote me a prescription anyway). It was only when I made the decision to pursue psychotherapy, at no one’s recommendation, that I experienced a transformation in my mental health that allowed me to feel I was doing better than just “coping” on a regular basis.
Our current preoccupations with “money, fame and image” are likely to be contributing to our sense of malaise, according to Twenge. I’d argue, furthermore, that these preoccupations are preventing people from seeking support, as if nothing could be more the opposite of these things than admission of the need for help. Too often, media narratives of depression and anxiety make me feel worse, because they are shaped into tales of money, fame and image: I was depressed, I got treatment, now I’m better and happy and successful. I understand why these stories take those shapes: there’s a strong temptation to discharge the illness by writing it out as if it has an end. Sometimes it does. For many people it doesn’t, and I fall into the latter category: OK to have reached a state of peaceful coexistence with my illness, rather than a cure. That’s what really makes me feel less anxious.