2 min read

The Rise of Mental Illness

The Rise of Mental Illness
Photo by Erwan Hesry / Unsplash

TW: Depression statistics

Most of you know that I study psychology and neuroscience. But few know that my undergraduate was in mathematics, and more accurately, liberal arts with a major in mathematics. So why did I choose psychology to pursue further?

One of the influences was a paper called The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail by Jonathan Haidt. In it, Haidt describes that we might think that we make decisions reasonably. What happens in reality might be different, though; we might make decisions based on feelings first and only use reason to justify them post-hoc. 18 year old me was like 🤯.

Fast forward to today, where I am writing my thesis in the psychology of social connection. And Haidt reappears! Recently (2018), Haidt has written a book called The Coddling of the American Mind (along with Greg Lukianoff). In it, they argue that the rise of mental health concerns on campuses can be traced to what they call the Three Great Untruths.

Before I list them out, let's spend a moment to understand the problem. We know that Gen Z (born 1995 and above) have higher mental health challenges. Take for example this plot:

It is very clear to notice that somewhere along 2014, there is a sudden uptick of mental (ill-)health reports. These trends are seen for anxiety as well, and globally.

Now you may look at this graph and think that the younger generations are just more comfortable admitting mental health challenges. I wish that were the case, but sadly we also see an increase in self-harm rates. 

So what's the problem? Haidt and Lukianoff point out that our beliefs might have changed. They think my generation is more likely to believe in the following three untruths.

Untruth #1: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker

Untruth #2: Always trust your feelings

Untruth #3: Life is a battle between good people and evil people

These are inspired by the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. For example, for untruth #3, CBT would say that dividing people into simple categories is a distorted way of thinking. In reality, the world does not divide neatly into such bins.

Where do we develop such untruths? Haidt and Lukianoff argue for various causes like the rise of social media, the decline in free play (or the rise of "helicopter parenting") and so on. It's worth reading the book to understand their case.

To conclude, my question to you is: do you agree? Firstly, do you agree that the rise in mental health conditions is real? And if yes, do you think Haidt's and Lukianoff's diagnoses is accurate? I'll share my opinion in the next email.