Anxiety and depression are isolating illnesses, but sufferers are hardly alone: according to a new book, the number of young Americans who’ve struggled with these mental health issues over the last 80 years has increased steadily. Sociologist Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before, told New York magazine this week that her research had led her to conclude that “modern life is not good for mental health”.
By measuring the frequency of symptoms associated with anxiety and depression – poor sleep, memory problems, concentration problems, and difficulty learning – Twenge came to believe that our forefathers and mothers were much happier that we are today. Or, at least, that they were less depressed and anxious.
I’m not afraid to write about my depression, but that’s in large part because I know that it’s unlikely that my admission of illness will affect my ability to make a living in the profession that I’ve chosen. This is an exception. Too many Americans – young ones, in particular – have too little access to good mental health treatment, whether because their health insurance does not adequately cover it, they can’t take time off work to seek it, or they feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek intervention. If modern life is unkind to our mental health, it’s no doubt in part because so many young people fear that admission of vulnerability will affect their employment, or their relationships, at a time when their futures are already far less clear than those of their parents.
Twenge theorizes that demographic shifts toward people leading more independent, less family-oriented lives has led to the upswing in unhappiness. I don’t want to give up the freedom that we’ve gained – in particular, since I am a woman, a retrograde movement towards traditional roles and expectations would make me very grumpy – but it does seem a shame that our freedom to talk about our feelings, and show real empathy to other people when they share theirs, has not kept pace with other kinds of forward thinking. I don’t think that you have to live in a single dwelling with your parents and grandparents to feel companionship and love, but it is emotionally exhausting to operate in a social milieu where we project the best sides of our lives through social media, but revile real vulnerability. There’s a dark space between the ever-mounting expectations of the everlasting American dream – to be better, to have more – and the actual truth: life is always a bit disappointing. Perhaps our ancestors were less burdened by disappointment because they weren’t socialized to expect as much.