The Generational Evolution of Mental Health

Part 1: Looking Back

In the town of Killingly, Connecticut, a war is being waged. Across the nation, teenagers are suffering from acute mental health problems as a result of the pandemic. The situation is especially dire in the schools of Killingly, where over one-quarter of students surveyed in 2021 had thought about self-harm and 14.7% had made a plan for suicide. Lawmakers at the federal and state levels have almost unanimously prioritized mental health services in schools, which are a front-line policy with the aim of addressing suicidal behavior and substance abuse. However, in post-Trump conservative Killingly, school-based mental health services have met with intense and unexpected opposition from many parents. Parents are not so much opposed to mental health treatment as they are afraid that the mental health services will intrude on their rights to educate their children. Specifically, parents are afraid that their children, who are at an age when they are especially psychologically malleable, will be influenced by psychologists on sensitive topics, most notably gender identity and abortion, without the parents knowing. Distrust of modern psychotherapy also has played a role, with some parents citing the “occultism” of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung or the drug-heavy treatment programs at psych wards. The mental health debates have also exposed a generational gap. Students talk openly, honestly, and intelligently about their traumas and fragilities, whereas their parents grew up in an era where mental health was taboo and children were told to “tough it out”. One parent even questioned the validity of the 14.7% statistic, suggesting that children didn’t know what they were talking about. Students, regardless of political orientation, almost unanimously support the program. The school board, however, refuses to budge, as both parents and students in favor of mental health services rally in support. Currently, both sides are at a stalemate, waiting for the state to intervene.

How many times must I emphasize the political agendas should have no place in providing health services? I’ve written about this in my previous post, “How do we talk about guns and mental health?” A similar problem erupted in Texas, where parents opposed school-based mental health clinics on the grounds that they were vehicles of “Critical Race Theory”. The reality is that therapy is the best way to help anyone with mental health issues, and that there is no way to control the conversations that happen between a therapist and a patient. Blaming therapy for political orientation is just as ludicrous as claiming that vaccines are meant to inject people with microchips. People are looking for reasons to turn public welfare into unnecessarily polarizing political debates, and young people are suffering as a result. Politics aside, Killingly also exposes the gap between the generation of adults who grew up in an environment where mental illness was not even considered and the generation of teenagers who are painfully aware of all the problems they face. These are problems that cannot be solved with a silver bullet, and so we must keep fighting to ensure that mental health earns its spot in the pantheon of social issues we deal with.

Part 2: Looking Forward

The first part provided a view of the older generation, but has the younger generation also lost its way? Clare Rowe, a psychologist, argues that it has. 1990s Australia was marked by the rise of a well-intentioned movement to promote acceptance of mental health discussion and institutions. Awareness advocates insist that mental health is a “silenced” issue that must be taught to children, and the Australian government has followed suit, investing billions in school-based education and intervention initiatives. However, Rowe argues, that noble goal has managed to normalize poor mental health itself. Young children who demonstrate any sort of difference are immediately labeled as mentally ill, and in today’s holy spirit of inclusion, treated and “accepted”. Moreover, Rowe argues, in order to satisfy their instinctive desires of individuation, connection with others, and external validation, encouraged and enabled by social media, and armed with the tools of self-diagnosis and mental health discussion, teenagers identify as mentally unwell. Like with TikTok self-diagnosis trends (which I’ve written about), children are categorizing normal human experiences as evidence of neurosis, and thus mental illness is losing its true significance amid its rapid normalization. Moreover, the view of mental illness as strictly a medical condition strips young people of their ability to better themselves on their own. The problem is made worse by helicopter parents who absorb the countless mental health advisories. Rowe uses Simone Biles as an example – the 2021 Tokyo Olympics gymnast who pulled out in the middle of an event, on international television, because of mental health concerns. She was praised the world over for her bravery, but also criticized as being selfish and fragile. Biles’ actions demonstrated the shift in the general acceptance of mental illness. Rowe’s message, in summary, is this: though public acceptance of mental health conditions is important, it is just as important not to get caught up in “a society that wallows in a culture of self-flagellation and diagnosis of emotional neuroses”, as such a culture diminishes the impact of mental illness and ignores humans’ abilities to overcome adversity.

            Reading the comments was… interesting. There were some people with exceedingly emphatic opinions on Simone Biles, a conspiracy theorist, a social Darwinist, and someone who cited Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (I’m not even sure what he was trying to say). Overall, however, the comments seemed to agree that the biggest problem was the instinctive woke finger-pointing and political point-scoring. Though written in slightly overly flowery prose, Rowe wrote that “Categorisation is a well-documented short-cut phenomenon employed to reduce the complexity of our experiences and environment to a simplistic form to conserve cognitive resources.” Is this not simply repeating what I’ve been saying for so long now, in my posts about cancel culture, the meaning of addiction, and gun violence? Young people have overcompensated for the mental health illiteracy of the previous generation by replacing it with unbridled, unfounded zealotry. Unfortunately, it’s wrong to think of the previous generations as completely backwards and unsalvagable and the future generations as natural bulwarks of progressivism. While these statements may be true to some extent (sorry, mom and dad), as Rowe states, it is a human tendency to get caught up in attractive but unrealistic dichotomies. I, for one, have thrown around the word “intersectionality” rather glibly, thinking that it could solve all our problems. In trying to write succint blog posts, I look for general themes and tie everything off with a neat bow, but such an oversimplicification does not do justice to the complexity of the subject. Moreover, some people are so very stubborn in their beliefs, without taking facts into account. For example, it’s impossible to know exactly what Biles was feeling at that moment, and while it is wrong to invalidate her past traumas, there is also the possibility that her situation did not actually warrant dropping out. And yet, people characterize her as either a hero or villain, while in reality no human fits either description fully. Amplified by the impulsive clickbait environment of social media, people separate into camps and attack each other with emotional charge, self-serving oversimplifications, political vitriol, and angry expletives, in the process dragging mental health into the fray and shaping it to fit the binary of political tribalism.

So what’s the “big takeaway”? In Killingly and Australia, mental health is a casualty of the ongoing trend of politicization and polarization. I’m getting a bit tired of repeating that the best thing we can do as productive members of civilization is to think twice before we partake of the unrelenting chaos we call society. Even so, thinking is the first step towards doing.

mkahmon

I'm a high school student dedicated to stimulating conversation around mental health.

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