The Weakest Generation


Depression, mental illness, chronic stress and anxiety, and self-harm are all serious and often tragic and devastating problems for the sufferers and those around them. Sadly, and counter-intuitively, they seem to be particularly prevalent amongst those we would otherwise think of as the most fortunate: the young, intelligent, reasonably well off, and blessed with seemingly bright prospects:

The newly-published report out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital shows that a quarter of college students received were diagnosed with a mental health condition in the past year, and a fifth have had suicidal thoughts.

Researchers looked at survey results from 67,308 students across 108 American colleges and universities during the spring of 2015…

The results showed alarming rates of mental health issues and a significant risk for suicidal thoughts among all students, though minorities, whether racial, sexual, or gender, were especially prone…

Nearly 10 percent admitted to attempting suicide, and nearly 20 percent had committed self-harm of some form…

While sexual minorities were found to have high rates of mental health diagnoses along with reports of self-harm and suicidal thoughts or actions, transgender participants showed high rates over all outcomes. Two-thirds of transgender students admitted to self-harm, while more than a third having attempted suicide. Similarly, more than half of bisexual students admitted to self-harm or suicidal behavior, while more than a quarter attempted suicide.

Asian students showed a greater risk of suicidal behavior, yet lower rates of mental health diagnoses compared to white students. Black students reported lower rates across all outcomes versus white students.

Says lead author Dr. Cindy Liu, of the Departments of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and Psychiatry at BWH: “Colleges and family members who are sending students off to college need to remember that this is a phase of life where young people are confronted with expectations from new relationships and living situations and other encounters that are stressful.” Well, yes, but there is surely more to it than that. The Millennials often get tagged as the “snowflake generation” for their predisposition to take offence and the inability to handle different ideas and points of view. This phenomenon as well as the apparent mental health epidemic both seem to point to a common problem of hyper-sensitivity and lack of resilience. Somehow, we have failed the Millennials – we the society, parents, culture, schools – by making what is arguably the most fortunate generation in the history of the world so ill prepared for life’s realities and challenges, which, again arguably, are much more modest in comparison to those faced by their parents and grandparents, never mind more distant ancestors. We can laugh at the ideas of trigger warnings and safe spaces, but a quarter of college students being diagnosed with a mental condition, a fifth self-harming and one in ten attempting suicide is no laughing matter – it’s a tragedy (even if there is a possibility that many young people are being misdiagnosed or overdiagnosed in the current medico-psychological milieu of creeping pathologisation and overmedication).

There is an interesting study that remains to be done about the relationship between political beliefs and political involvement on the one hand and the mental state and mental health on the other. If I had to speculate I would say there is a strong correlation between radical and progressive beliefs and depression, anxiety and self-harm. Note that I did not say causation; I don’t believe that socialism is a mental illness – what I do believe is that ideological fragility is related to mental fragility; that if you need safe spaces to protect you from conservative ideas, you probably need a safe space to protect you from life in general, which can be harsh, disappointing, and not conforming to our ideals and preferences.

Either way, as a society we have a profound long-term problem. How do you repair a broken generation? And if it’s not possible, what becomes of the world they inhabit and shape?