Why Are Rates of Anxiety and Depression Increasing In Record Numbers?

When comparing results posted by the American College Health Association Fall 2017 survey to those from 2011 rates of anxiety have doubled and rates of depression have risen by 50%. These numbers are alarming, and so there must be a reason why anxiety and depression have become such a pervasive problem. Most emotional difficulties if they are going to occur tend to manifest in early adulthood, which is just around the time that these young adults are leaving for college. Young adults are more emotionally vulnerable now than ever before because they have a weakened emotional core that cannot easily withstand the stress associated with the demands and challenges of this new stage of development. And I believe there are several reasons for this phenomenon: social media, the increased competitiveness of college admissions, bullying especially cyber-bullying, the need for two income families, and the increased number of divorce.

Social Media

It is a natural impulse for people to make comparisons in order to evaluate themselves but the problem with comparison making is that by using another as a yardstick for self-evaluation, one person will always be on the deficient end of the comparison. The purpose of social media is to showcase and so it is automatic to make comparisons, and because what we see is only a moment in time of a person’s life, carefully selected to project an ideal rather than a true reflection of a real life with ups and downs, and imperfect moments, we usually end up feeling bad about who we are and our lives. We know that our lives are not perfect and that we often feel insecure and filled with self-doubt. We know that we are not always happy and sometimes we feel sad, anxious, and lonely. When we see the pictures however posted on social media we are easily fooled into believing that other people are always more than what we are; they are more confident, and more content, they have closer friends and more loving families, and in fact, they appear to have perfect lives and so we believe there must be something wrong with us.

Once this feeling of deficiency is internalized, it creates an internal belief of not being “good enough”, and now everything is seen through a filter of failure and inadequacy. What this means is that we see ourselves as being a disappointment and therefore imagine that others see us in the same way, and sadly we will see what we expect to see. In addition, if everything is seen through a filter of inadequacy then it is easy to experience others in a negative way too, and conclude that people are untrustworthy, and that they will inevitably fail us. It is therefore more helpful to spend less time on social media and invest more time in being productive, engaging in personal development, and interacting with real and not virtual friends.

Increased competitiveness of college admissions

Not all cultures value college education equally. I grew up in a culture that recognized the necessity of becoming self-sufficient but college wasn’t necessarily the only path, and in fact, vocations were equally as valued. However, in this culture it is different and parents start thinking about this almost immediately after their children are born. They think about how they can best prepare and help their children become impressive enough to gain admissions into the most prestigious colleges, and because “good” parents are devoted, they are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this. They want to give their children a competitive edge by either finding that one thing in which their child can excel and distinguish him or herself above the rest or creating a child that is simply impressive in their accumulated accomplishments. Unfortunately, we undermine our children’s confidence and competence in the process by doing too much for them, and at the same time also silently convey the message that accomplishments are necessary to be valued, and that their achievements are all important to us. Of course, this isn’t the intended message but all actions communicate messages and this is how children often assign meaning to our emphatic encouragement of their achievements. They may come to equate being a worthwhile and desirable human being as needing to be perfect, and if they are not perfect then they are worthless.

I also believe that there is a generational ziegeist as a factor in play. Children, for example, who were raised by the ‘baby boomers’ were known as “latch key” kids because their parents were pursuing the ‘American Dream’, and were often absent. It is possible that these children may have felt neglected and questioned whether or not they were important to their parents. Even though they may have felt alone and unimportant, they were a generation that learned to be independent and self-reliant. They didn’t turn to or expect their parents to be there to problem solve or manage their lives and so they were able to experience themselves as being capable, and having efficacy. They were confident that they could sort things out, handle adversity, and find solutions to problems.

This generation, the Millennials, however, have been robbed of that experience because we, the Gen Xer’s were so concerned that a misstep would ruin our children’s chances of getting into the most coveted universities that we didn’t let our children suffer the natural consequences of their actions, which would have made them more resilient to adversity. We didn’t let our children problem solve because we couldn’t risk that the outcome would not be successful. We couldn’t take the chance that forgetting a homework assignment at home would reduce their grade, and so we rushed to school to drop it off because anything other than all A’s we feared wold jeopardize their chances of getting into the ‘best’ university. We were even willing to arrange accommodations on tests even if our children didn’t need them, just to guarantee a higher score. Unfortunately, when our kids go off to college, because they haven’t been raised to feel capable and self-reliant they question whether or not they can succeed. Knowing that they ‘cheated’ may exacerbate this feeling of being an imposter, which further undermines their self- esteem. It creates an anxiety that sooner or later they will be exposed and that it is just a matter of time before they fail.

Bullying

Bullying has always been an issue but it appears that since 2005 those who have reported being bullied increased by almost 25%. Perhaps the reason for this is that it is easier to humiliate and cause another human being distress when you don’t have to look them in the eye. Using the Internet as a bully platform creates a distance and an immediacy that also makes it easier to act impulsively in the moment without considering the consequences. In addition, the humiliation felt from the old fashioned type of bullying was restricted to those that witnessed the event or were closely associated to those who perpetrated or witnessed the event. With the Internet however, the humiliation is magnified because it can’t be contained but rather spreads like wild fire and causes much destruction.

Two Income Households

It is not just that it is more expensive to live today that it was before, which necessitates both parents often having to work but rather it is that parents want to provide so much for their children that it requires that both parents must work. I spoke earlier about the competitiveness of college admissions and the desire to give children a competitive edge and to distinguish them as being better than others. This is a costly goal. It is expensive to pay for dance class, hockey equipment and tennis lessons. To learn to play the piano, the violin, and cello. To pay for ACT and SAT tutors, for boot camps and college counselors. Parents are so busy providing for their children that they often don’t get to just spend time and appreciate being with their children.

Increased Rate of Divorce and Single Moms

We all process information differently and assign different meanings to events. Children also have unsophisticated cognitive reasoning abilities and so are only able to draw simple cause and effect conclusions. In addition, they are egocentric, and so believe that things that happen to them or around them are because of them. What this means, in the present context, is that they may falsely conclude that work is more important to mom than them, and sadly the meaning they often assign to this belief is that it is because they are lacking in some fundamental way. They may falsely conclude that mom chooses to be absent because they are unable to keep her attention because she finds no joy in being present. Unfortunately, when a belief of not being “good enough” is internalized everything is seen through this filter of deficiency. Since, one of the most common perceptual biases is the confirmation bias, we will always find evidence to confirm our beliefs, even if it means that we blatantly ignore any information that would challenge them, and if a situation is ambiguous, we will manipulate the information to conform to our existing belief.

These reasons may explain why anxiety and depression is increasing, and why when young adults go off to college emotional disorders are becoming so prevalent. These young adults have not internalized self-worth and since this is the foundation on which self-esteem is built if it is not solid then the self-esteem won’t be solid either. It will be susceptible to external events, and since there already exists a belief of defectiveness all negative experiences are seen as a confirmation of inadequacy. Going off to college is a new experience, and with change, stress and moments of self-doubt are inevitable. Unfortunately,when self worth is lacking, and these feelings are experienced the self-esteem becomes devastated.

Solution

In order to strengthen the emotional core of young adults so that they are able to withstand the stress of this new stage of development, I believe it is necessary to receive psycho-education about the concepts of self-worth and self-esteem and to recognize whether or not low self-worth exists. The purpose is to be able to dis-identify from the feeling of flaw and failure by recognizing that these feelings are not a reflection of reality but rather originate from the false conclusions drawn from the absence of certain experiences during the formative years. In addition, when low self-worth is present, negative thinking patterns and self-defeating behaviors will also be present, and so if one can identify their negative thoughts and destructive behaviors then they can be replaced with healthy ones that don’t continue to reinforce low self-worth. Lastly, if parents are able to recognize whether or not they too suffer from low self-worth then they will be more aware of the motivations behind their actions and therefore interact differently with their children, rather than continuing the inter- generational pattern of transmitting low self-worth.

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