‘We need to stop telling kids they’ve been traumatised’

Abigail Shrier on how therapy culture makes children miserable.


Topics Science & Tech

By every available metric, Gen Z has the worst mental health of any past generation. Diagnoses of mental-health disorders and the use of antidepressants are surging among the young. Even suicide is tragically on the rise. Yet, at the same time, no other generation has ever had such easy access to therapy. No other generation has ever been so ‘aware’ of the apparent importance of looking after one’s mental health. And none has ever been so comfortable using the language of ‘PTSD’, ‘anxiety’ or ‘trauma’. For Abigail Shrier, author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up, these two trends are inextricably linked. The mental-health industry has colonised childhood. And it is doing far more harm than good.

Abigail joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show to discuss all this and more. Listen to the full episode here.

Brendan O’Neill: We are told today that childhood trauma causes lifelong suffering. Is this true?

Abigail Shrier: I want people to know that it’s not true that all traumatic experiences leave a permanent mark on you. In fact, researchers have found that most people will emerge from traumatic events completely fine. We are actually built for resilience – a quick look at human history will tell you that. A lot of people think that the Brits who survived the Blitz, for instance, were traumatised by what they went through. They think the reason we don’t hear about it is because this generation was deeply repressed. That’s why we don’t know about their trauma.

This isn’t true. Researchers have found that resilience is the norm, even for combat veterans. How you understand the ‘trauma’ you went through is far more important than the mark it supposedly leaves on you. That means if you falsely believe you went through childhood trauma, you’re more likely to have problems as an adult than someone who actually went through trauma but who doesn’t think of it as traumatic. In most instances, telling a generation that they’ve been traumatised is so much more profound and harmful than even the trauma itself.

O’Neill: How prevalent is this therapeutic culture, and in what areas of life does it show up?

Shrier: It’s completely infused into American life. Children in particular are constantly exposed to it. Since 1986, every decade has seen a near-doubling in the expenditure of mental-health resources in the US. The lion’s share of that is going to kids and adolescents. Now, these aren’t kids with severe disorders. They’re kids who are just bummed out. Vast amounts of resources are being used to treat those who are well.

In schools especially, children are taught ‘social-emotional’ learning. Teachers routinely play the therapist role and ask kids to talk about their feelings. Children are encouraged to dwell on a time when they felt sad, bullied or left out. And at the same time, a lot of the best-selling parenting books are written or heavily informed by therapists. They all encourage parents to endlessly focus on and solicit their children’s feelings.

As a result, we are now seeing an explosion in the number of children being given a mental-health diagnosis. Nearly 42 per cent of Generation Z has a mental illness. Less than half of them say their mental health is good. And 40 per cent of them have already seen a therapist to receive treatment.

These are kids. We have convinced ourselves that any deviation from total happiness among our children means they have a brain problem that must be diagnosed and medicated.

O’Neill: Is it conspiratorial to ask whether therapists are just reproducing this problem?

Shrier: You don’t need to be conspiratorial to question the effectiveness of therapy. When it comes to any other effective treatment in the West, the more accessible you make it, the lower the rates of disease and suffering become. But as therapy has become more accessible and more prioritised, rates of depression have only gone up.

It seems to me that therapy clearly isn’t working for two reasons. The first problem is that, for the most part, we are treating the well rather than the unwell. The people who suffer from genuine mental ill-health are undertreated, underserved and undermedicated. They are under-therapised, for lack of a better word. But that’s not at all true of the mentally well.

Another problem is the ‘iatrogenic’ risks of therapy, which are the harms introduced by the healer during treatment. The known harms of therapy include increasing depression, anxiety, alienation from one’s parents and an increasing sense of inefficacy. People are made to feel like they cannot do things for themselves and must rely on experts.

This largely explains why young people have what is called an external locus of control. They don’t believe that they can make a positive difference in their own lives. A friend of mine, who is a research biologist, tells me that the young scientists she employs in her laboratory have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. No matter how good their scientific background, they are all afraid to run their own experiments. They say that they are working up to it. They give her constant updates on their mental health. This is a classic side-effect of therapy, where the patient is induced to think that they cannot do anything on their own.

Of course it goes without saying that if you genuinely need therapy, it’s worth taking the risk. The problem is that kids who don’t need therapy are the ones getting it – often from a very young age. As a result, we have a rising generation that simply refuses to take any risks.

Interestingly, researchers have conducted controlled studies on the impact of therapy on breast-cancer survivors, burn victims and first-responders to catastrophes. Once again, those who went to therapy ended up in greater distress than those who did not. Why? Because sometimes sitting around and talking about the symptoms of PTSD and whether you have it is enough to make your trauma worse. Forever talking about your sadness over the loss of a loved one won’t necessarily help you grieve and move on.

The experts have studied this over and over again, giving the same common-sense result: often if you just leave people alone, they will find their own way to get better.

Abigail Shrier was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Matt Ridley and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation

Matt Ridley and Brendan O’Neill – live and in conversation


Thursday 21 March – 7pm to 8pm GMT

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Picture by: Abigail Shrier.

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Topics Science & Tech


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