Imagine: It’s our society that is broken, not our kids

What we see as depression, anxiety, addiction and the growing mental health problem is a sign of a society that is sick. Unfortunately, our children are paying the price for it.

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“Young people are so fragile nowadays,” this is something we get to hear a lot these days. It makes me visualise them as crumbly, breakable, brittle items of chinaware with the label ‘Fragile: Do Not Shake’.

As a father mansplained to me recently, “They are very weak, they have got it easy and that’s why they are like this — depressed, anxious, stressed out. In our times, we did not have the luxury of all this. We had to be strong and manage. But now you cannot say anything to these kids.” A part of me was annoyed with his quick dismissal of the growing mental health problem as a sign of weakness, but there was a small part of me that realised that in my exhausted moments even I have felt like this: “What is happening to our kids? Why can’t they get their act together?”

It does seem like we are in the midst of a mental health breakdown where almost every second child starting middle school is going through some “issues”. There is much talk about the “epidemic” of mental health problems reaching unprecedented proportions. We have been made to believe that it can all be understood as “chemical imbalance” but that does not hold much water in the face of growing research and begs the question, “Who has a chemically balanced brain and what does it look like?” To the point of being provocative, I can say it is pretty fictional.

Both these narratives do not work — neither can we place the blame on children for being weak or fragile, nor can we see the problem as “chemical imbalance” as that places the problem in the realm of the personal — situated in the person or the family (bad genes or bad parenting). What we are seeing as depression, anxiety, addiction and the growing mental health problem is actually a sign of a society that is sick. It is fraught with consumerism, affluenza (a hybrid of affluence and influenza) and gnawing competitiveness. Unfortunately, it is our children who are paying the price for it.

Johan Hari explains it well in his book, Lost Connections: “I started to see depression and anxiety as cover versions of the same song by different bands. The underlying sheet music is the same.” Disconnection and loneliness is the core theme of the sheet music they are playing from.

What do the young do with their sense of disconnection and despair? They try to numb it with whatever they can — nonstop gaming, shopping, social media obsession or high-risk behaviour like drinking, drugs or jumping into a series of “casual hookups”. And of course, we judge them and blame them for their “bad behaviour”, “addictions” or even “promiscuity” without really taking responsibility for creating a society that is pushing them into it with eyes wide shut.

And the ones who are most vulnerable are those who are seen as being different due to their wiring, sexuality, gender identity, looks, family background. These are the outcasts, who live on the fringes of society. As one child told me, “I feel invisible in school, as if I am a ghost. Everybody looks through me. Nobody knows the real me. My life is all about getting good grades, SATs and ACT scores.”

They have internalised the propaganda that the only way they are worth something is if they get into good colleges and have financially stable career. It is like we have inflicted third-degree burns on them and when they react with pain, we accuse them of being “so weak”.

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