Monday, March 18, 2019

America's Mental Health Crisis

Young Americans, especially teenagers and young adults are suffering a mental health crisis. Depression is up. Anxiety disorders are up. Suicides are up. Dare I say that spending on mental health treatment is also up?

Two questions remain open: why this spike in mental illness? And what should we do about it?

Psychologist Jean Twenge examined the statistics and discovered that mental health among young Americans is seriously declining:

One of the best ways to find out if mental health issues have increased is to talk to a representative sample of the general population, not just those who seek help. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has done just that.

It surveyed over 600,000 Americans. Recent trends are startling.

From 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent. Depression surged 69 percent among 16- to 17-year-olds. Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017. Twice as many 22- to 23-year-olds attempted suicide in 2017 compared with 2008, and 55 percent more had suicidal thoughts. The increases were more pronounced among girls and young women. By 2017, one out of five 12- to 17-year-old girls had experienced major depression in the previous year….

Tragically, suicide also jumped during the period. For example, the suicide rate among 18- to 19-year-olds climbed 56 percent from 2008 to 2017. Other behaviors related to depression have also increased, including emergency department admissions for self-harm, such as cutting, as well as hospital admissions for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

Since Twenge is going to blame it on social media gadgets, because she found a correlation between the invasion of techno gadgets and the spike in mental illness, I will also point out that the dates 2009-2017 happen to coincide with a major event in American political history. If we want to indulge in correlational thinking, we are obliged to point out that it’s not just iPhones, it’s the Obama presidency that seems to have directed impacted teenage angst. We will return to the topic.

For now, examine Twenge’s argument. First, she dismisses the notion that  young people are now more likely to confess to problems that had previously remained hidden:

Is it possible that young people simply became more willing to admit to mental health problems? My co-authors and I tried to address this possibility by analyzing data on actual suicide rates collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is a behavior, so changes in suicide rates can’t be caused by more willingness to admit to issues.

Aside from this point, we would also point out that if children are more likely to admit to mental health problems, they might also be more likely to receive treatment. We can ask how much treatment is available and how good the treatment is. Are children being offered medication and a pat on the back? Or are they told to show their vulnerability, to get in touch with their feelings, to feel their feelings and to express their emotions openly, honestly and shameless?

Long time readers of this blog know my position. If this whiny empathy is the best talk therapy the mental health profession can offer, then children are just as likely to avoid treatment. Treatment that wants them to feel weak and vulnerable is not going deter children from committing suicide. It is not going to teach them how to get along with other children. It is going to foster soul searching, teaching them to withdraw from the world. In this, as in many cases, therapy and the culture it fostered is more the problem than the solution.

For her part, Twenge does not address the question of the quality of care available. And she does not address the question of the effect of living in a culture that systematically degrades normal social interaction in favor of soul searching.

She does, however, consider—and then dismiss—the question of whether or not the economy plays a part:

A troubled economy and job loss, two typical culprits of mental stress, don’t appear to be to blame. That’s because U.S. economic growth was strong and the unemployment rate dropped significantly from 2011 to 2017, when mental health issues were rising the most.

It’s unlikely that academic pressure was the cause, as iGen teens spent less time on homework on average than teens did in the 1990s.

Of course, the economy was coming apart at the seams in 2009. And, prospects for future employment did not improve radically during that time. The Obama recovery was among the most anemic in American history.

As for schoolwork, young people today do not really attend school. They are submitted to non-stop indoctrination in the dogmas of political correctness. They cannot compete against their peers around the world. And this means that their prospects for future success are going to be severely limited. Many young people are attracted to socialism because they know that they cannot compete in the free market. Like their millennial predecessors, they have only been taught to vote for politicians who promise to take care of them.

As noted above, Twenge blames it all on social media:

But there was one societal shift over the past decade that influenced the lives of today’s teens and young adults more than any other generation: the spread of smartphones and digital media like social media, texting and gaming.

While older people use these technologies as well, younger people adopted them more quickly and completely, and the impact on their social lives was more pronounced. In fact, it has drastically restructured their daily lives.

Compared with their predecessors, teens today spend less time with their friends in person and more time communicating electronically, which study after study has found is associated with mental health issues.

If social media was the problem, then it would produce the same problems around the world. You cannot really assess its influence unless you can show that children in Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo and Helsinki, all of whom possess the same gadgets, are showing an equal rise in mental illness.

If such is not the case, we need to look at causes closer to home. As noted, a school system that does not prepare children to compete in the world must be on the list. Broken homes, disorganized lives, a lack of consistent family dinners… these too have notably been shown to have a negative impact on children’s mental health. How many of the children suffering these problems live in two-parent homes? How many of them receive enough attention from their mothers, in particular?

And then there is the Obama factor. The opposite of depression is pride. Not hope. In particular, national pride. Did the Obama presidency produce a decline in national pride? When the president felt compelled to apologize for the nation and its past, he was not expressing pride; he was manifesting shame. Obama was ashamed of America. Why would young people not pick up the message and lose their pride in America? With America being disparaged by professional athletes, why would that not cause young people to lose pride in their nation, to lose a sense of purpose in their lives, to reject hard work and competition in favor of becoming charity cases? It’s one thing to feel like you belong to a proud nation. It’s quite another, mental health wise, to feel like your nation is not worth fighting for, that, given its manifold faults and crimes, it is not worth the trouble to work to improve it. If America’s crimes are the problem, if bigotry is the only thing we need to fight, the solution is penance. And yet, penance might also include martyrdom and self-sacrifice.

And you were wondering why America’s young people are more depressed and anxious than ever before.

1 comment:

David Foster said...

Perhaps their is an analogy with the high suicide rates among many of the American Indian tribes.

A woman who attended one of the Indian Schools (run by whites) recalled: "We were told that everything about us was wrong...our religion, our language, our mode of dress, our food" (very approximate quote)

Isn't this somewhat reminiscent of what American kids are told in school and by much of the general culture today?