Kids these days, amirite? Back in my day, no one had ADHD. Kids played outside so depression wasn’t an issue. When I grew up, no one cared what pronouns were. Y’all. Every generation goes through this. Society is not static. The times they are a’changing. What isn’t changing is mental health. And while there is a growing crisis, actually multiple crises, it isn’t a mystery where it’s coming from. The mystery is why we aren’t doing more to deal with it. J/k that’s not a mystery, the answer is of course money. And while that in and of itself is depressing, let’s look at some of the factors that are contributing to the mental health crisis.
Mental health for “kids these days” isn’t worse, we’re simply more aware of it, because we’re more aware of everything. A teen who is struggling with depression symptoms can go on Google and pull up more information in seconds than doctors have had for literally thousands of years. The internet has made information so readily available that our awareness of the symptoms people are dealing with grew, not even exponentially, it just straight up exploded. Simultaneously, we went from small, disconnected societies to a global community in a few short years. So, not only did the amount of information available rocket straight up, but the amount of people we could connect to increased at an insane rate. Now kids who are all dealing with similar symptoms can find other kids with the same symptom. So, let’s say a kid is struggling with an eating disorder. At least 9% of people deal with an eating disorder in their lifetime (that number is super low depending on population, for example 91% of college females report some level of unhealthy dieting symptoms). And to make the math easier, we’re gonna round up to 10%. So, Suzy grows up in a medium sized city and has a high school of about 1,200 students. Potentially, about 120 students in that school have an eating disorder. Not nothing, but a small chance Suzy runs into someone dealing with symptoms similar to hers that will be open about it. But now, Suzy can connect with anyone in her city of 500k, which means there are 50,000 potential people Suzy could talk with who can relate. And on top of that, 330 million peeps in the US, so now the chance that Suzy can talk with someone else who is dealing with what she is has sky-rocketed. Humans have a bias against large numbers (our brains literally can’t process them in any realistic way), so we forget just how big a deal the internet is. There are millions and millions of people online who struggle with disordered eating, and while unfortunately they all aren’t online putting out good/helpful information, the odds that a kid can find someone they relate to, and then open up to people in their real life has increased in an unfathomable way compared to before the internet existed. There is no comparison to “back in my day” if back in your day was pre-internet. The world changed. End of story, it isn’t a relevant comparison at all. Now, with all this information available, and with an expanded global community, society’s comfort with talking about these topics also went up. These were taboo topics in the past because 10% of people in your town are a small minority. But take that small minority and multiply by millions of people, and our societal awareness has to increase. So, information, comfort talking about it, and number of people talking about it all increased simultaneously (by which I mean, over a few years as the internet become more and more common), so yes, it seems like this huge growth seems crazy, and it is, but also totally expected given the circumstances that changed allowing this growth to happen.
Second big factor is with all of this information at our fingertips, society has become more aware of what a clusterf*ck civilization has been for years now. I like to use climate change as an example. My brother grew up in the early 80s. He had Captain Planet, a superhero who drew power from natural elements and fought climate disasters and giant corporate polluters. I grew up in the 90s when the movie Fern Gully came out. That movie was about rainforest destruction and the evils of giant corporate polluters. I have two small lads at home who love the show Octonauts. It’s about a group of heroic animals who band together to rescue animals from natural disasters and the perils of the ongoing climate crisis. All these shows have the same message, because since before the 70s we had data on how humans were causing harm to the environment on a global scale. Pre-internet, we had shows and movies to tell us about these issues, but in an abstract and narrative sort of way. Now, with the internet, kids can go online and track the number of polar bears left in the wild, while also finding out that those giant corporate polluters are pulling in record profits. It’s maddening, and the amount of sheer greed and corruption that goes into this still being an issue is easily accessible. And this ease of access and excess of available information is there for pretty much every single major societal challenge going on right now in the world. We can pull up livestream video of the ongoing war in Ukraine. We can get our daily mass shooting updates. So, how does this affect mental health? Well, kids are growing up with a set of principles and morals taught to them, and then they have access to data that shows the adults in charge of things are not following those principles and morals. So, it creates a really distressing cognitive dissonance, and while some people handle that by burying their heads in the sand, others get frustrated and take a lot of that stress on, and continual stress is bad for our mental health! Especially if it is systemic stress and we feel limited in our ability to enact change. So, yeah, information is kinda great, but when that information points to problems that have been ignored for stupid reasons like corporate profits, it creates problems.
And that is really only scratching the surface of the rise in teens mental health issues, not even getting into any other demographic. Spoiler, frequency and severity of symptoms are on the rise across all demographics. Mental health isn’t new, and it growing as a problem isn’t a surprise. The surprise is that it is taking so long for our collective society to do something about it.