I had a meeting arranged with one of my undergraduate students for 10am last Friday. At around 9.30 I received an email from her saying that since she was “struggling with [her] mental health” she wouldn’t be able to physically come to the building. It would be “too much”. So could we please have the meeting via Zoom instead?
This kind of thing has become completely normal. Vast swathes of students have diagnoses of ADHD or the ubiquitous ‘anxiety and depression’; the rest, who don’t, still feel no compunction in disclosing their ‘struggles’ at the drop of a hat. Working around these issues is now simply a fact of life for academics. We confront them literally on a daily basis.
Debate around the mental health crisis among the young tends to bifurcate into two camps – which, unusually in our times, doesn’t tend to cleave neatly to the political Left or Right. On the one hand, there are those who think it is real and that the conditions young people grow up in (too much screen time, too little socialising, too much pressure in school, family breakdown, consumer capitalism, structural racism or sexism, worries about climate change, take your pick) are conducive to bad mental health. On the other there are those who think the issue is overblown and probably a matter of overdiagnosis (either because adults are too soft or because of financial incentives for child psychologists and doctors and ultimately ‘Big Pharma’).
To my eye, there is no doubt that young people generally have objectively worse lives on average than those of my generation (I came of age in the late 90s). I of course generalise, but: they spend way too much time on their phones and sat in front of screens; they are inadequately socialised; they don’t get outside enough; too many of them come from broken homes or single parent families; society has become much too cut-throat and wealth-obsessed; they are under huge pressure to look good and say the right things at all times; they depend too much on passive forms of entertainment and they don’t seem to have hobbies. The day-to-day experience of life, in other words, is for a lot of them just a bit shit – and who wouldn’t be depressed in those circumstances?
But on the other hand the incentives all now seem to point in the same direction. Getting a diagnosis for ‘anxiety’, for instance, is ludicrously easy, and once you have it, doors are simply opened for you (at my institution, for instance, if you suffer from this ‘condition’ – I thought it was a normal human emotion – you automatically get 25% more time when sitting an exam). And if you don’t fancy coming to campus because it’s raining or you’ve got a hangover, ‘struggling with my mental health’ is a readymade excuse that nobody can really inquire into – the 2023 equivalent of ‘my grandma died’. To what extent the crisis is real or fake is therefore difficult to answer. It’s both.
In a sense, though, the cause is irrelevant, because the fact remains: we have an entire generation now – really anybody under the age of 25 – which seems to think a) that mental health problems are common, b) that having one is a legitimate reason either to avoid doing something undesirable or to receive special treatment of some kind, and c) that it’s wrong to ‘judge’ or stigmatise anybody if he or she suffers from such a problem. And the effect of those beliefs is the same, however sincerely they are held: avoidance of responsibility; self-centredness and navel-gazing; excuse-making and shoddiness. Each year a growing number of undergraduate students on my course don’t sit their final exam in May, when they should, but during the re-sit period in August, because their mental health issues are purportedly so crippling. Does it matter whether this is because they are just pretending and want a few more months to revise, or because they are genuinely in dire mental straits? At the sharp end, the consequences are identical.
One used to be able to convince oneself that kids would grow out of this kind of thing once they entered the ‘real world’ of employment – just as one used to be able to convince oneself that they would grow out of being woke when surrounded by real adults. The truth is that the opposite is happening: society is being forced not just to accommodate but to encourage the eccentricities of the young. Hence my institution and its 25% exam extension bonus for the anxious, and every employer on LinkedIn advertising its ‘duvet days’ and ‘mental health afternoons’ and therapeutic working environments. What’s worse is that the grown adults, who have no excuse because they were raised in the good old days of the stiff upper lip, are getting in on the act. Last year, when a student at my institution unfortunately died, the other students in his various seminar groups (who barely knew him) were encouraged to apply for extensions to the submission deadlines for their coursework by their 40-something module tutor on the basis that “I’m sure you guys are struggling”. The same staff member later himself went off work for four months (at full pay, of course) with that other favourite, ‘stress’.
I don’t therefore believe that a solution can be found to this issue now; these attitudes are ingrained and almost universal among younger people (though I am aware, of course, that there are plenty of exceptions) and, as I have suggested, are even infecting the old. I’m afraid we are simply going to have to watch a vast experiment unfold – the political and cultural consequences that follow when, for the first time in human history, the majority of society describes itself as suffering from a mental health problem and deploys it as a ‘get out of jail free’ card at the drop of a hat. When, indeed (consider the absurdity of the times in which we live!), having an abnormally low mood has become normal. And when this condition is at its rifest among the professional classes – doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, architects, civil servants – who have graduated from university and basically run society. The only advice I can give is to hold on to your hat – because things are about to get interesting, and not in a good way.
Busqueros is a pseudonym.
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