For Some Teens, Social Pressure, Political Climate Fuel Rising Depression and Anxiety
By Zaria Harrell
(2018 Mohbat Prize Runner Up)
Caroline Johnson was 13 years old when she started to notice toxic patterns emerging in her life. She realized she was placing her self-worth in others and their opinions of her, rather than basing it on what she saw in herself. The San Antonio native was constantly attaching herself to people who were, in the end, no good for her but she was drawn to them because of what she saw in them — a uniqueness she felt she lacked.
Later, social media only fueled this lack of confidence and need for approval. Johnson would spend hours trying to perfect her Instagram page, scheduling posts, downloading editing apps to alter the images and comparing her Instagram page to others, comparing herself to others. Her anxiety would begin to spike the second she opened the app. When she saw friends hanging out she would think, “Why didn’t they invite me?” And then ask, “Do they even like me?” Social media, she says, was a constant stimulant for her anxiety and depression.
Depression diagnoses are on the rise amongst Millennials and adolescents such as Johnson. Major depression diagnoses increased by 47 percent amongst Millennials, aged 18 to 35, between 2013 and 2016, according to a May 2018 Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) study. This increase was even higher amongst adolescents aged 12 to 17, at 63 percent. This is compared to a 26 percent rise among those aged 35 to 49 and a 23 percent increase among those aged 50 to 64 during the same time period.
“Major depression diagnoses are growing quickly, especially for adolescents and Millennials. This health condition has many implications for the future health care needs for these younger Americans,” says Satya Doyle Byock, a psychotherapist who specializes in 20-something clients and is based in Portland, Oregon.
Johnson, who is now 18, believes that social media has played a major part in the lives of her and her friends — for better and worse. While social media has given them a space to be creative and to connect with long lost friends and their favorite influencers, it has also pushed them to develop a “need to constantly become something [they’re] not,” to become the cookie cutter image everyone believes they should be. In response, Johnson says she has begun to limit her time on social media, realizing there’s more to life than how many likes she gets.
Byock describes this need as the Great Gatsby Syndrome — putting up a facade and putting aside one’s own happiness. “We’ve been trained to play the part, but people are miserable underneath,” she says. She adds that often doctors only provide medical answers and diagnoses, but there are no solutions for young people’s existential problems and questions on what it means to be human in a complicated world. This can leave young people grappling with these larger life questions on their own.
This need to be better, to be something you are not, is not new. But a December 2017 study published in Psychological Bulletin showed that this growing obsession with becoming perfect is due to a shift in cultural values in recent decades. In the study the authors say that “young people are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval.”
For 18-year-old Keyana James, an afro-Latina living in Queens, New York, the media’s portrayal of the mistreatment of black people has contributed to her depression. James says she feels there’s no sympathy from the media when it comes to black bodies.
“The media does not hesitate to take those stories [about black people] and completely disregard the fact that those are… human beings with feelings who have families that now have to mourn their loss,” she says. She adds that media outlets, such as CNN and Mic, “post videos of execution up and down our timelines to no avail,” and from there it is shared repeatedly by social media users.
Seeing this daily puts a toll on James and those growing up witnessing these horrific events, she says, as there is fear that at any moment they can become the next victim, the next hashtag.
For both teens, they say their depression is also worsened by the current political state. Johnson says the division in our nation is terrifying, making it hard to think about what can happen tomorrow.
Psychotherapist Byock agrees. Millennials are the “first generation since Vietnam that have come of age with a nation perpetually at war,” she says. To her it’s no wonder that Millennials and younger generations are suffering as she believes a poor job has been done to support them. To better support young people, Byock suggests doing such things as fostering a greater sense of mentorship, building trust in communities with elders, improving access to psychotherapy, creating safer communities and improving humanities education.
In addition, to address the potential health impacts of depression and anxiety on Millennials and adolescents “further education and research is needed to identify methods for both physicians and patients to effectively treat major depression and begin a path to recovery and better overall health,” said Trent Haywood, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BCBSA, in a press release.
Johnson and James also have ideas of how to ensure that the generations that come after Millennials and Generation Z don’t have to deal with the political and social turmoil that their generations are enduring, and its consequences on their mental health. For James, the solution lies in changing the current political situation. She believes the best thing we can do for young people is to get a seat at the table, push for legislative reform and get the opinions of this generation out there so that when it comes time they can “curate change in [the] legislature.”
For Johnson it involves more self-reflection. She says young people need to stop placing so much pressure on themselves and to stop striving for perfection. “We need to start shifting where we place our worth.”