Why Are Mental Illnesses so Common in Millennials?

According to the American College Health Association, suicide rates among those aged between 15 and 24 have trebled since the 1950s. In 2014, the same organization reported that one in three college students said they often felt so depressed they could barely function. Indeed, so bad are the rates of mental illness among the young that some now consider it an epidemic. But why is the millennial generation suffering in this way?

The Millennials

The Millennials, also known as “Echo Boomers,” are those born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s. In other words, it is the generation whose adolescence and early 20s coincided with the arrival of the Internet, the Millennium, and the 9/11 terror attacks. They are also the generation who began their careers amid the fallout of the 2008 financial crash.

To get a clearer sense of this generation, it may help to contrast them with those who came before and those who followed. After the Second World War, there was a population boom in many Western countries as returning servicemen started families. The generation born between 1945 and the mid-1950s are thus known as the “baby boomer generation.” They gave way to generation X, consisting of those born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s. The millennials have themselves now given way to so-called “Generation Z,” who were born around the millennium itself.

Loss of Control

Anxiety is inevitable when people feel that life is both uncertain and out their control. Of course, it could be argued that life has always been uncertain and that the individual has never had any say in the wars, recessions, and revolutions that sweep the world (the baby boomers, for example, will often remind their children that they grew up during the cold war, under the threat of nuclear annihilation!). But among the millennial generation this sense of uncertainty and lost control has been intensified by globalization and the increasing pace and scale of technological change.

Globalization means openness, but it also means vulnerability. Identity, for example, is becoming ever more problematic. Human beings feel safer and more secure when they belong to a tribe or group. Today, national, racial, and cultural identity is constantly being questioned and undermined. Borders are more open than ever, and in some cases are simply ignored. The migration crisis in Europe is a good example of this, with ever-increasing numbers of African and Middle Eastern migrants making their way into the E.U. Since the birth rate of white Europeans is so low, this is certain to change Europe’s cultural and racial make-up.

Globalization also means a change in the way people work. And many fear that the larger and more multinational businesses become, the more likely they will be to avoid tax, ignore the welfare of their workers, and disregard the consequences of their actions. And the more globalized the economy becomes, the more helpless the individual worker feels. Alongside this, there is a real fear that national governments are now irrelevant, adding to that sense of lost control. When you add in global warming and an ever-increasing population, mass anxiety is hardly surprising – especially among a generation exposed to almost limitless information.

Finally, people now feel more connected to, and involved in, events on the other side of the world. A bloody civil war in Africa or a tsunami in Asia would once have received no more than a few columns in the morning newspaper. Today, images will appear live, in high definition, and on news channels that seem to operate all hours of the day and night.

Then there is technological change. Thanks to the Internet and 24-hour-news (which is often both sensationalist and focussed on the negative), the young are more aware of science and technology and where they may lead. But, whereas the post-war generation assumed that they would take us somewhere exciting, the millennials have been filled with a sense of doom.

For example, it is constantly said that robots and Artificial Intelligence will mean an “end to work”. But instead of headlines like “people free to enjoy their hobbies as machines do all the work” you are more likely to see “mass job losses as machines take over”. Or take ageing. Again, there seems a real prospect of slowing the ageing process and extending the healthy lifespan. But this is presented as a doomsday scenario rather than something wonderful, with commentators focussed on overpopulation and the economic and psychological impact of longer lives.

The Individual Struggle

Collective identity is giving way to an increasing emphasis on the individual. In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama argued that the great ideological struggles are over. People, argues Fukuyama, have largely settled for capitalism plus liberal democracy. In 2000, the British historian Andrew Roberts wrote that history had proved Fukuyama right about “the rise and rise of capitalism.” Indeed, capitalism may eventually topple the nation state itself, leaving nothing but individuals in competition with other individuals.

And yet the millennials are poorly prepared for this individualistic struggle. For a start, there is what is known as “helicopter parenting”, meaning that their parents are too involved in their lives: phoning colleges to find them a place, even coming with them to job interviews etc. This may be partly due to the fact that people in the West tend to have fewer children, which means they can focus more time and energy on them.

The self-help industry has also boomed over the last 20 or 30 years, with numerous books now available on how to raise your kids, reinforcing the idea that this is a sacred duty to which people ought to devote themselves. Finally, there is the “everyone must win a prize” approach of schools, in which teachers are discouraged from making children feel like failures and instead told to reward them.

Obviously, no one can blame parents or schools for trying to nurture and encourage the young. The downside, however, is that many young people now move into the world believing they are above average. But the world they are entering is in many ways harder than the one their parents faced. For a start, the millennials earn less. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, they may even be the first generation of modern workers to see their lifetime earnings fall.

The millennials arrive at college only to find that, whereas for their grandparents, and even to an extent their parents, this was something exceptional, something to be proud of, it is now routine. Indeed, many millennials find they need a Masters or even a PhD in order to get ahead (according to a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for example, nearly half of the 20-something graduates they surveyed were working in low-paid jobs that didn’t even require a college degree). And even when they do find work, it is often less stable. The idea of a “job for life,” which their grandparents took for granted, is now increasingly rare.

Social Media

Perhaps nothing marks out the millennial generation quite like their addiction to social media. For all its benefits, the Internet obviously has a dark side. To begin with, just as the mildest of people can turn into raging lunatics when they get behind the wheel of a car, sitting behind a computer screen often brings out the worst in people, who will post vicious, spiteful comments online that they’d never say to someone’s face.

But social media also presents the young with a ridiculous view of other people’s lives. The photos a millennial sees on Facebook, for example, are not a true reflection. On the contrary, what you see are carefully selected highlights: old school friends, sun-tanned, handsome, and laughing, usually surrounded by family and loved ones, or maybe kissing their partner and child. And of course, the millennials’ parents also see photos of their old friends and colleagues, leading them to urge their own children on. Commentators have even come up with an acronym to describe this effect: “FOMO”, meaning “Fear of Missing Out.”

When you put these things together, the mental health crisis is hardly surprising. Here you have a generation for whom both the sense of identity and of control are under pressure. It is a generation far more aware of the world’s problems and horrors than ever before, while also feeling closer to, and more involved with, them. It is a generation better informed, but at the same time subjected to 24 hour news (or rather, 24 hour bad news) and aware that the pace of technological change is now speeding up. In their personal lives, most are taking college degrees that count for less, entering a job market that pays less, and yet are subjected to social media images that urge them to achieve more.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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