‘Quarter of a million children receiving mental-health care in England.’ This news headline ought to shock. But, for many of us, it will barely raise an eyebrow. And little wonder, given that for well over two decades now we have been treated to one lurid report after another warning that mental illness is on the rise, that its prevalence is far greater than we previously thought, and that it afflicts all groups in society.
There never seems to be any good news to report on mental illness. Last week, a widely cited report claiming that 28.2 per cent of young women have a mental-health condition was hogging the headlines. A week before that, the focus was on a mental-health crisis afflicting university students. And before that, we were being told of the rise of mental illness among children.
The rhetoric of mental-health scaremongering has become so integral to public life that individuals and groups promoting a cause often adopt it to validate their case. Last month, for instance, opponents of payday loans in Scotland sought to strengthen their argument by asserting that ‘payday lending is putting people’s health at risk by increasing debt and anxiety among those who are already vulnerable’. Or, to take another example, opponents of the government’s austerity policies claim that benefit cuts are causing depression rates to rise. It seems that virtually every social problem, every political challenge, seems to have dire mental-health consequences.
One of the consequences of the widespread promotion of mental-health catastrophism is that being mentally ill is fast becoming the new normal. This is especially true among mental-health proponents’ main target: the young. Indeed, over the past couple of decades there has been a constant stream of reports and publications claiming that children and young people have never been as anxious, depressed and insecure as they are today. Hence among the media and policymakers, the narrative of a ‘generation in crisis’ has firmly taken hold.
Of course, a sense of alienation and existential insecurity has long characterised being young, from the Romantics to the Beats. What has changed, however, is that youthful angst and insecurity has both been medicalised and, increasingly, inflated.
Take the advocacy report No Place For Young Women, published by the Young Women’s Trust in September, which claims that 51 per cent of young people feel worried about the future. What does this actually mean? One can imagine a similarly high percentage of young people being worried about the future in 1914, 1929, 1974 and so on. It seems unlikely that past generations of young people felt any more secure about the future than young people do today. In fact, I’ve rarely met any teenager or twentysomething who isn’t worried about the future. But there is a crucial difference: today, an individual’s concern about the future seamlessly mutates into a mental-health issue. It’s not a surprise, then, to find the Young Women’s Trust meshing anxiety about the future with mental-health issues, even stating that 33 per cent of young people are ‘worried about their mental health’.
To state that one in three young people is concerned about his or her mental health is usually based on little more than participants’ quickfire responses to the question ‘are you concerned about your mental health?’. Such a response tells us very little about the factors that affect a participant’s state of mind, from their physical health to their personal relationships and economic security. Certainly, there’s no reason to think that concern about the future is linked to a form of mental illness.
Not that that stops mental-health advocates from transforming ‘concerns’ about the future into evidence of a generational crisis. ‘Make no mistake’, stated Dr Carole Easton, head of Young Women’s Trust, ‘we’re talking about a generation of young people in crisis’. This conceptual leap from individuals’ concerns to evidence of a generational crisis is a good example of how everyday problems and worries are being interpreted through the language of crisis.