It is disillusioning to see the amount of people my age grappling with mental illness. As a 22-year-old, many of my friends seem to be struggling with depression and/or anxiety. No matter where I look or who I surround myself with, it exists. While some argue that the prevalence of mental illness is seeming to increase because youth are more comfortable talking about it than previous generations, mental illness rates have reached an alarming magnitude that indicate something much deeper is occurring. One quarter of young people aged between 16-24 are living with a mental illness and suicide rates for 15-24 year olds are at their highest level in 10 years, being the leading cause of death for young people.
The biggest difference between my generation and my parents is the emergence of the digital age. Although technology has many significant benefits, we need to critically think about our constant use of digital media and its influence over our lives. There are numerous studies that indicate seeing the world through technology can encourage a narrow sense of self, reflected by narcissistic traits rising as quickly as obesity. This is particularly worrying when most children know how to use tablets by the age of two and are getting smartphones by the age of seven. As a 2015 study points out, more than one in two teenagers (57%) aged 13-17 find it hard to sleep or relax after looking at social media and 60% feel brain ‘burnout’ from being constantly connected. Although frequent social media users are three times more likely to develop a mental illness, over half of teens connect with social media 5+ times a day and 25% constantly connect.
The massive propensity of youth struggling with mental illness indicates a generational level of situational depression, also exacerbating the severity of predisposed mental disorders. We need to be critical of dynamics within modern-age society, asking ourselves why this is happening. As suggested by a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, our social isolation and dissatisfaction is caused by constant comparison of the idealised lives people present through social media, making us unable to be happy with ourselves or what we are doing. We become so obsessed with “Fear of Missing Out” that we are anxiously addicted to our social platforms, ironically missing out on forming real meaningful connections with those already around us. This social deprivation and disintegration of local community takes a big hit on our emotional identity. When we do try to be present in reality, the lingering presence of our work and social obligations becomes an incessant source of anxiety. The real world makes us feel depressed and lonely, because while we are so connected, we are more disconnected than ever.
Our culture has become deeply self-monitored and risk-averse, having a major impact on our resilience. In this unbearably competitive environment, our measurement of success is based on external ideas of what our life is like, tossing aside our real identity and esteem. We are not coping with this unsustainable pressure, as shown by university students being five times more likely to experience mental illness. This is unsurprising, with youth employment rates hitting record high rates, property costs increasing exponentially and older people working for longer, making it necessary to pursue further study and accumulate $50K+ worth of debt before even entering our chosen fields. In a time when we are forming our identities and deciding who we want to be, this immense competition makes us feel like we don’t have the luxury of making mistakes or deliberating over our careers. Instead of using hard experiences as growth and positive change, we catastrophise and struggle to pick ourselves up. We compare ourselves to our peers, who front themselves as being exactly the opposite (together, well rounded, happy content) through the deceptive means of social media.
On top of this, with over 44% of young people identifying as Greens-voters, our wants and needs are being ignored. Each day there seems to be a new, but sadly unsurprising, natural disaster, while we are caught up in a system that appears to be the only option because our Government is being dictated by older (and more right-wing) generations. We don’t have the idealism of the 60’s or 70’s anymore. We have Donald Trump, Brexit, and a looming climate disaster. The future does not look happy, it does not look bright – it looks as though we are powerless to the same old stupidity that got us in this mess, with no chance of change. It is no wonder that, despite feeling more anxious after using digital technology, we continue in the cycle for validation and a sense of community in a world that otherwise leaves us feeling dissatisfied and unheard.
Of the 3.1 million young people in Australia, 775,000 are now classed as mentally ill. This is to our own economic detriment, with mental illness reducing life expectancy by 14 years and lowering productivity, currently costing the economy approximately $20 billion annually. As pointed out by the Huffington Post, Australian universities and schools currently have little consistency in mental health policy. The Turnbull Government is also “quietly dismantling” Headspace and moving central control to Primary Health Networks (PHNs). Chris Tanti, former CEO of Headspace, argues that this will remove funding towards early intervention programs and remove oversight of clinical standards. We desperately need the Government to develop broad, consistent mental health policy, with a focus on face-to-face early intervention programs at both provincial and national levels. We need society to see these prevailing mental illness rates as a critical reflection of an increasingly dysfunctional society. Most importantly, we need to feel like our voices are being heard, because we are screaming out for change.
If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness, you can seek help at Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or LifeLine Australia (13 11 14). These are free, 24/7 services. If you live outside Australia, you can find a suicide prevention service here.