What do we do about this mental health pandemic?

Apr 02


3 Responses


Helen Whitten

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What do we do about this mental health pandemic?

I speak for myself but I think my generation are a bit confused by the burgeoning problem of mental health amongst the young.  We were brought up at a time when our parents had just been through the Second World War and our grandparents had been through two wars.  Our everyday concerns probably seemed thoroughly petty in comparison. If we were shy before a social event or anxious before exams there was pretty much an attitude of ‘so what, that’s pretty normal, just get on with it.’  The concept of not feeling safe because someone didn’t agree with your opinion on something, or the idea that a teacher should give us a trigger warning before we read Macbeth, King Lear or even Of Mice and Men would have confounded us.

But that is not to say I don’t feel compassion for those who are experiencing these concerns, for who is to measure one person’s anxiety or depression against another’s?  Surely these things are hard to measure in a really scientific way. They are emotions that are experienced subjectively so it is perfectly possible that younger generations are experiencing heightened emotions. Professor Jonathan Haidt, whose books The Coddling of the American Mind and The Righteous Mind I would urge you to read, is putting this down to Social Media.  I haven’t yet read his new book The Anxious Generation but I understand he has studied the impact of social media in great depth and is recommending that children are not given a smart phone before the age of sixteen, unless for medical purposes. This is because the endless competition can be damaging to self-esteem and he also argues that the intensity of interaction with a phone is reducing a young person’s ability to communicate, socialise, play, or learn to take risks.

I’m not convinced that there is more to worry about now than there was in our youth.  We faced potential extinction through nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis and were given ridiculously inadequate advice about hiding in the cupboard under the stairs (like that would save us!).  But there was a more optimistic energy in the air.  The lifestyle in the 1950s was thoroughly basic but all of a sudden there was Elvis and then, as the 60s arrived, the Beatles and the whole pop and fashion scene that gave us teenagers a distraction from real life and actually boosted the economy too.  There was that essential ingredient to life – hope. And there wasn’t social media, nor were there any 24/7 misery-news channels. We got outside and chatted and played and most certainly took some risks.

So what do we do about a large group of the younger generation lacking the resilience to manage life’s challenges?  I fear we have not helped them to understand that life is tough.  Perhaps they have seen too many photoshopped images of people looking amazing and happy and successful and feel inadquate.  Companies report that the younger generations are entering the workplace expecting to go into senior roles, unhappy if asked to do the photocopying or make the coffee.  I guess we had been raised to expect less.  Certainly we women had been, and we had to fight to get taken seriously. But expectations have to be set within a context – go for an optimistic outcome but accept that things may not work out the way you want –  “I would rather my TikTok post gets lots of likes but I can manage it if it doesn’t,” or “I would rather I get this job but I can manage it if I don’t” style of thinking.  This way your emotions won’t fall off the edge of the cliff if you don’t achieve your goal but you are going for the goal nonetheless.

But we also have to give people hope, remind them that history unfolds in patterns and what seems hopeless one moment can be replaced with good news in the next. I think what may have been missing from the message in the self-help literature of recent decades is that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum overnight, it generally comes from working very hard and it’s only the very lucky few who have any kind of overnight success.  But of course now one gets 13 year old influencers who are making pots of money on TikTok and I am certainly confused by that as I personally don’t think we know anything much about life until we’re over 40.  But no doubt I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that earlier in my life!

So how do we address this problem of mental health?  Well, as I have written before, it is good that the conversation is out there but it seems to me that we are over-pathologizing some of these cases and forgetting that teenagers always have trends and, as emotions are infectious, if one is feeling something then it’s more likely that two, three, four, ten, or a hundred will feel it quickly too.  Look at my generation screaming at the Beatles – that hadn’t happened before but it soon became the way girls behaved at concerts, just as the heavy mascara, short skirts, pvc macs and the rest became a fad.  We have to be careful not to pathologize a whole generation but to be able to spot those who really are suffering or require a specific diagnosis.  When I read that GPs have given out 500,000 prescriptions for anti-depressants I question whether they have had time to explore the symptoms adequately in their ten-minute appointments, or whether they have pointed the young person to lifeskills or, indeed, philosophy as an option.

For Cognitive-Behavioural approaches were based on the Greek philosophers and I am a great believer that philosophy can indeed give us consolation.  My father gave me some philosophy books when I was a teenager that helped me think about myself and my responses to life.  That’s not to say I didn’t get a lot wrong, certainly was shy in particular situations then and now, and got and still get anxious before exams, interviews or presentations as this is pretty normal stuff, but I had some mental tools to overcome those feelings so that they didn’t capsize me.  We can talk our anxiety up or create self-talk that boosts our confidence and sense of calm in a realistic yet optimistic way. Thinking is key.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, suggesting that we should spend some time in reflection and self-observation.  In this we can learn to accept that we are each unique mentally, emotionally and physically and that we can respect ourselves and others in the right to have different responses and opinions to situations. We can learn to focus on what is joyful and what we can be grateful for, but not shy away from the difficult emotions such as anxiety, sorrow, jealousy, resentment for these are part of the human condition and feeling them can ultimately make us stronger.  But there is a point where any one of these can, indeed, become a problem that requires psychological support should they overwhelm on a longer-term basis.

We all get into habits of thinking. We can get into the habit of being pessimistic or seeing the world from the perspective of the glass half-empty but equally the brain is plastic and, just as we can learn a language, manage a new mobile, or how to control a new software programme, we can also learn new ways of thinking that bolster our resilience and mood. A useful one is to question whether one’s thought is logical, whether others might respond differently – which opens up lateral ways of approaching a problem – or whether one’s thought is actually helping one manage the situation one faces.  If not – change the thought! This will change the emotion and therefore the action one chooses to take.

I hope these younger generations will develop the skills to manage life more easily and I would suggest that reading philosophy can be helpful. So I shall finish this article with some words from the philosopher Epictetus about not shying away from difficult situations: “The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”

Books on cognitive-behavioural approaches


3 Responses

  1. Dear Helen, to philosophy, about which I fully agree, I wish to add mythology and depth psychology.

    A good guide to mythology is Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Power of Myth’; and Carl Jung’s depth psychology treatise ‘The Symbolic Life’.

    Both touch on the mid-life crisis, which you mention, around the age of 42. I experienced it as a rather traumatic shift in my psyche from ‘I’ to ‘We’; seeing the World through others eyes instead of my own limited viewpoint. Jung described it as the shift from three to four; physical, mental, and emotional, with the fourth being the spiritual.

    The Gospel of Thomas has a poignant line ‘The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the face of the Earth and people do not see it’ … until after their crisis of psyche.

    I do feel for today’s younger generations. A wider appreciation than just their immediate lot in life gives perspective, whether from philosophy, mythology, depth psychology, and even religion.

    1. Thanks Simon, yes the midlife crisis is very real. When I was a business coach the majority of my clients reflecting on their lives and future direction were between the ages of 35-45. Thanks for the book suggestions. I have read The Power of Myth and only parts of Jung. Perspective is indeed so important. For example it can’t be any fun to be growing up as a teen in the Ukraine or Gaza any more than it was for my parents at the start of WWII. We live with uncertainty and have to find ways to manage it.

  2. Beautifully observed Helen.

    We’ve made the world we live in very complicated, when in fact to live happily is to live simply.
    On a radio discussion recently about happiness, someone said “we need a purpose in life to be happy”.
    I would second that ! Philosophy would certainly help.

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