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.
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