Depression

Why Young People Face a Major Mental Health Crisis

Rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide call for solutions.

Posted Dec 26, 2019

Mladen/Adobe Stock
Source: Mladen/Adobe Stock

Recent studies have revealed a troubling trend among Generation Z (those born from 1995 to 2015), as rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide in this cohort are markedly higher than in previous generations. For example, a 2019 study found that among undergraduate students, “rates of depression, anxiety, … and suicide attempts markedly increased [from 2007 to 2018], with rates doubling over the period in many cases.”

These increases have been found for both males and females, though they’re especially pronounced among girls and young women. I find these developments concerning both as a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety and depression, and as the dad of three Gen Z kids (including two daughters).

Some have argued that these trends are not real, but instead reflect this generation’s greater openness about their mental health symptoms. However, there is evidence that these numbers reflect a disturbing reality; for example, it’s hard to argue that the increased rates of suicide attempts and completed suicide are simply a self-reporting bias.

I recently spoke about these developments with social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, which he and co-author Greg Lukianoff explored in The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (see also their 2015 article with the same title in The Atlantic).

Great Untruths

Lukianoff himself has a history of major depression, and at one point had made serious plans for suicide. Through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) he learned how certain ways of thinking can contribute to depression.

For example, a person prone to depression might believe that their feelings are an accurate reflection of reality—a thinking error called “emotional reasoning”—so if they feel worthless, they must actually be worthless. CBT is an effective treatment for depression in part by helping people identify and change these problematic ways of thinking.

Lukianoff noticed that many Generation Z college students seemed to hold beliefs that make them vulnerable to depression and anxiety—beliefs that often fly in the face of the best-tested wisdom from the ancients. “The small percentage of ideas that came down to us from the ancients came through a filtering process where only the best, most resonant, most helpful ideas made it down through thousands of years,” said Haidt.

He explored ten of these great ideas in a previous book, The Happiness Hypothesis. For example, he cited the Greek Stoic Epictetus’s counsel to embrace life as it is: “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.”

“It was almost as though someone had read The Happiness Hypothesis and said, ‘You know these ten ancient ideas that are generally true? How about if we teach the opposite of them to students?” said Haidt. He cited three in particular—the “Three Great Untruths"—that seem to be driving mental health struggles in Gen Z:

  1. You are fragile. Haidt said it was as though students were led to believe that “if they encountered something that was offensive to them, they would be made weaker by it.” This belief is the opposite of the timeless truth that strength comes through managing life’s challenges, captured in Nietzsche’s maxim, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  2. If you feel it, it must be true. Students seemed to have learned that “they should always trust their feelings,” said Haidt. This belief flies in the face of wise counsel that teaches that our feelings are unreliable sources of information. Learning to question our automatic emotional reactions is an invaluable skill in navigating life, and our relationships in particular.
  3. Life is about Us versus Them. Haidt also said that many students seem to believe “they should see life as a battle between good people”—those who agree with them—"and evil people”—those who hold opposing beliefs. “And this is exactly the opposite of what the ancients—East and West—have taught us.” For example, Haidt and Lukianoff quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart.”

Campus Callout Culture

Taken together, these three beliefs led many students—especially at elite colleges and universities—to see themselves as the fragile protagonists in a battle against evil. Haidt described how these beliefs not only set up students for depression and anxiety, but seem to drive a parallel trend on campuses.

“Around 2014, weird stuff started happening on university campuses,” he said. “Students were asking for protections from books, words, and speakers, as though if a speaker came to campus they would be traumatized—even though they didn’t have to go to the talk.” Many students were asking for “safe spaces” where they would be insulated from ideas they found offensive, and “trigger warnings” about potentially upsetting material became the new campus standard.

When students believed their emotional safety had been violated by remarks they considered to be insufficiently sensitive, they often called for severe punishment of the offending party. For example, they might start a social media campaign to have a professor or university president fired for comments that questioned their version of liberal orthodoxy. As a result, it has become much more difficult to have constructive dialogue about important topics that could be controversial.

Haidt attributes these reactions to a thinking error called “catastrophizing,” in which problems are made to seem much bigger than they are. With relatively small issues “like a joke you don’t find funny, it used to be that you could just say, ‘What a jerk,’ and that was the end of the matter,” said Haidt. “But now it becomes indicative of something that’s much larger,” with demands for punishment. (See this list of common thinking errors from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple.)

Solutions

There’s no quick or easy fix for addressing the Great Untruths and the challenges that face Gen Z. Here are five recommendations that emerged from my discussion with Haidt.

  1. Work closely with Generation Z. Solutions can’t be imposed from the top down. A large percentage of students know the damage the Great Untruths are doing, and aren’t happy about it. This is a bright and passionate group of young people, and they surely have a lot to offer in solving the problems that face their generation.
  2. Promote tested wisdom. Parents, teachers, professors, and others in positions of influence can play an invaluable part in teaching young people the ideas that sustain civilization and move humanity forward. See Haidt’s curated collection of these ideas in The Happiness Hypothesis.
  3. Return to the Stoics. The teachings of the Stoics in particular can be powerful in learning to face life’s inevitable difficulties, as they rest on the premise that each of us is responsible for our own happiness and peace of mind. Stoic philosophy is also foundational to CBT. Haidt cited the writings of Marcus Aurelius, who said things like, “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” These ideas can counter the thinking errors that reinforce the untruth of fragility, like "outsourcing happiness" (giving outside factors the final say in our emotional well-being). For a related discussion, see this Think Act Be podcast interview with Stoic philosopher Dr. William Ferraiolo: How to Train Your Mind Like the Stoics.
  4. Teach cognitive behavioral techniques. Haidt said that CBT “has been an incredibly helpful guide to understanding the moral incoherence and new world view that some of the students at elite schools seem to be using as their playbook.” He recommends learning the principles of CBT as an antidote.
  5. Delay access to smart phones and social media. A growing body of research is pointing to social media use—especially at a young age—as a mental health risk factor. “Gen Z is the first generation that was brought into the social media world in middle school,” said Haidt, which he and Lukianoff identify as one of the forces behind the rise of depression and anxiety in young people. They recommend waiting until students are older to expose them to the world of social media.

For more, visit TheCoddling.com.

Find a free e-guide on CBT for anxiety here.

The full conversation with Jonathan Haidt is available here: How to Correct the Three Great Untruths That Are Harming Young People.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

References

Duffy, M. E., Twenge, J. M., & Joiner, T. E. (2019). Trends in mood and anxiety symptoms and suicide-related outcomes among US undergraduates, 2007–2018: Evidence from two national surveys. Journal of Adolescent Health, 65, 590-598.

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York: Penguin Books.