To kick off the new year the BBC publicised new research commissioned by the mental health campaign See Me which indicates that nearly 30% of Scots claim to have experienced mental health problems. This phrase, 'mental health problems’, comprises a myriad of complex conditions, ranging from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to more common disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Depression, according to Scottish charity Action on Depression, directly affects one in five of us. With over a million Scots currently experiencing various symptoms of depression, it is quickly becoming one of the most aggressive epidemics of the late-20th and early-21st centuries and an expensive problem for the NHS.
It’s an illness that can affect anyone, but in 1988 Dr Martin Seligman called depression 'a young person’s problem’, a claim that is still applicable 30 years on. According to YoungMinds, nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression in the UK, and the rate of depression and anxiety among teenagers has increased by 70% in the past 25 years.
So how can we explain the astonishing rate at which depression is rising among young people? For one, more people are willing to admit to experiencing symptoms of depression because the stigma around the illness is declining. According to psychologist Terrence Real, depression was largely considered to be a woman’s problem until as late as the 1990s, and this fundamental misunderstanding of the causes and symptoms of depression meant that it was seriously under-diagnosed and mistreated until recently.
In addition, defining depression has become an ongoing semantic battle. Since the 1980s, mental health professionals have adopted a definition that often conflates genuine depressive disorder with normal though intense bouts of sadness that can last as little as two weeks. As a result, depression has been alarmingly over-diagnosed in recent years.
But one significant change which has perhaps had an understated influence on the rate of depression among young people in particular was the inception of the world wide web in the 1990s. Now, with all human knowledge at their fingertips, young people are in constant competition with one another to achieve the best grades, secure the best internships and ultimately earn the highest wage. In a 2016 survey for Parent Zone, 93% of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers. Ironically, it seems that mental distress has ensued as a result of the competitive and materialist values that are supposed to drive young people to succeed.
Moreover, social media, a by-product of the internet, has introduced a platform whereby young people have a worldwide audience for their every success, failure and everything in between. As many as 90% of young adults aged 18-29 have a personal social media account, but with social networking comes great pressure to project the wittiest, most attractive and most interesting version of yourself. The average social media user spends more than 1.5 hours every day on social media, and young people are literally spending hours of their lives composing the perfect posts, tweets, and editing their photos for the best results.
There is a line in a poem by Neil Hilborn in which he depicts himself as a young man contemplating how easy it is to think ‘until the world becomes no larger than the space between your bed and the light switch’. Like the man in the poem, thousands upon thousands of young people across the world are thinking themselves into a catatonic state, spending more time projecting versions of themselves than actually discovering who they really are, and there is immense pressure to do so.
Young people today are expected to live by a sense of efficiency and urgency that bespeaks the digital era to which they belong. Before they even get out of bed in the morning they have checked their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and emails and learned of new atrocities taking place across the world. They can be contacted at any time of the day through a number of mediums, and there is the expectation that they should be as available as they are contactable.
Young people are expected to be continuously switched on, ready to project whatever version of themselves is required at any given moment, and these demands are exhausting. In this kind of climate, it’s hardly surprising that depression is affecting 30% of Scots, and while it isn’t exclusive to young people, it certainly affects them in ways unlike any generation before.