Are people suffering more mental ills than ever before? Are people more depressed, anxious, manic than ever? Is the world becoming a crazier place?
Recently I was at a case conference when the presenter, a distinguished health care professional, observed that people seem to have more severe pathology than in the past. He insisted that, in his opinion, there is a higher level of illness and disorder that psychologists and psychiatrists are asked to treat now than in previous years. This steady creep of more severe mental illness, he observed, seems to have begun about ten years ago, but has become much more noticeable, having crossed some subtle threshold, within the last few years. He could not explain why and had no clear notion as to what to attribute it to or even if it was only limited to his experiences. Those in the audience tended to agree with this phenomenon, though, having seen similar trends in their practices. It certainly makes for an interesting hypothesis for a demographic evaluation and a psychological study: is there more mental illness than ever?
I am a student of human behaviors and emotions not history. I have my own assumptions about this trend that I myself have also observed. It is based on two factors coinciding in a witch’s brew of stressors. The first is the burgeoning narcissism of an entire generation fed by material availability, excessive parenting, and pampering, and the second is the increasing social isolationism fueled by a social media culture nurtured in a secluded lifestyle – with the primary relationship existing between a person and his or her digital device.
There is a fair amount of clinical data suggesting that millennials are more narcissistic than previous generations. Hard data is difficult to come by but from the perspective of a group character, millennials were the first generation raised with the overriding view that everyone is special. They widely assert that everyone deserves a reward, and self-esteem is the primary goal for all but most especially for themselves. While not necessarily rising to the level of a clear mental disorder, this character style puts a great deal of burden on all. In order to maintain your own view of high self-worth, particularly when it is not warranted, requires one to either dismiss reality by dissociating from it or, continuously elevate ones ego at the expense of others. Both of these approaches force an individual to lose touch with reality and create an idealism that can never be met. This is not just a constant burden on the ego it is also an indication of a developing mental syndrome. Think about all those who chose to spend funds they do not have. What happens to them when the saviors, Mom and Dad, say “No more”?
Getting help is fine until it becomes a lifestyle. When the assistance ends, stress levels sore. It is also a generation that suggests that micro aggressions constantly occur. They need protection from these perceived attacks rather than learn to cope with life, as it exists and work to make it better. I have seen some in this position go to extremes, even stealing, simply to maintain their routines and ego. They dismiss their own aggressions. When it reaches this degree, pathology is not about the narcissism alone but includes the singularity of drive as in a compulsion or addiction. These trends do not exist in a vacuum though; they combine with the other major prevailing change in society.
A good initial measure of a person’s mental stability, often reported in psychological assessments, is their level of eye contact. There is virtually no contention that more and more people are looking others in the eye less and less. How about all those people who walk the street texting and bumping into others. I have found that many more people would prefer to have their therapy via telephone or Skype or Facetime, it is just so much easier for them.
I am not a fan of what is becoming known as Teletherapy, at least not on a regular basis. It creates a sense of detachment, a wall, in the therapeutic environment between the provider and the patient that makes it harder to read a person. Yet, it is a new expanding trend. This distancing further isolates a person from their environment. Inevitably, without a human connection to the world isolationism sets in. Loneliness is a precursor to depression and anxiety and reinforces the sense that narcissistic view of “I am the only one that counts”. In the Google world one can always search and find like minded people and via computer link engage, if that’s what you call it, with them.
The addiction to one’s own narcissistic drives and an isolationistic approach forms a profile that may inevitably result in a pathology that is difficult to diagnose and address. Maybe the world is a crazier place and maybe people are more mentally disordered. Or maybe, these changes are simply no different from what has occurred in every prior generation – adjusting to change takes time, patience and understanding.