How a generation forgot what it is to be resilient

young person head in hands
young person head in hands

They have been dubbed “generation anxious”, even “generation sicknote”. And it is perhaps not hard to see why.

A new study by the Resolution Foundation has revealed that a third of those aged 18 to 24 experienced symptoms of mental illness – such as anxiety or depression – in 2021/22, up from a quarter at the turn of the millennium.

Experts say the “worrying trend” is damaging the economy – with 5 per cent of young adults not at work due to sickness. Some four in 10 list their mental health as the main reason for not working.

The shift means people in their early 20s are now more likely to be unemployed due to ill health than those in their early 40s. But why has this happened? And has a culture, specifically in schools, of talking openly about mental health issues actually done this generation more harm than good?  Some experts believe so.

Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, feels a cultural shift has damaged a generation who now medicalise everyday stresses and strains.

He says: “We have reframed everyday problems into mental health issues.

“Life has always been difficult. There are relationship breakdowns and failings and struggles. But children have been taught that these difficulties are psychological issues that need medicalising, and not a normal part of life.

“Our schools and educational institutions cultivate a sense of weakness and powerlessness. And it has stopped them from having a sense that they can take charge of their lives.”

He says that taking anxiety and depression as normal can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But he says it is not the fault of those who are affected.

He says: “Young people find normal problems of life very difficult – but it’s not their fault. They have been educated to think in this way. The education system has created a public health problem and it is going to get worse.

“But not going to work and watching daytime TV or scrolling is the worst thing that can be done. You end up feeling sorry for yourself and being more messed up.”

The report by the Left-leaning Resolution Foundation says young people are now the most likely group to experience a common mental disorder.

This is a stark reversal to 20 years ago, when that same demographic was the least likely to be experiencing a mental disorder.

Those with lower qualifications are also more likely to be unemployed – some 79 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds who are workless due to ill health do not have A-levels.

But it is not just in the field of work: mental health problems are also driving school absences, with 28 per cent of secondary school children classed as persistently absent. One in eight 11 to 16-year-olds with poor mental health missed more than 15 days of school in autumn 2023.

And between April and October last year, there was a 77 per cent rise in the number of children needing treatment for severe mental health crises such as suicidal thoughts, eating disorders and self-harm.

Furedi believes the situation is getting worse year on year – and began as far back as the 1990s.

He says: “I believe it was a big psychological shift, where people began to talk, to explore, to perceive everyday life as psychological. Then it has accelerated since the turn of the century.

“My son is 28 and I remember when he was seven, he came home from school talking about anxiety and being stressed out – like a mini Freud.

“Once you start using this vocabulary, kids will pick it up and play the part that’s assigned to them. Mental health problems have been universalised.

“Some schools have recently started talking about resilience, but this is a second-order principle, after vulnerability. We need to emphasise young people’s capacity for resilience and courage.”

His views are echoed by Peter Fonagy, the chief executive of the Anna Freud Centre, which offers treatment, training and research on child mental illness.

He believes that self-diagnosis of mental health issues, often driven by social media, has caused a huge problem.

He told the Financial Times: “There are the students who are mentally ill who need help. And there are the students who are having a rotten time, are not coping well and who have diagnosed themselves as being unwell.”

But he adds that that self-diagnosis, and also avoiding things such as school and exams, is a surefire way to make someone feel worse.

He adds: “Anxiety and low mood and unhappiness are not illnesses. They are part of life. Students are struggling and need better ways of coping but do not have a medical problem. The ones who are unwell need to be packed off to counselling, but counselling will make the others worse.”

In the workplace, it is clear the impact is being felt.

One anonymous employer, who works with graduate trainees in a large London media firm, says: “Every time we recruit someone, they come in with a file on their mental health ailments, and typically their allergies, too. We are then obliged to give them easier work, or take it easy on them.

“I’ve also noticed that we can’t give any proper feedback anymore. If they turn up and do completely useless work, you certainly can’t tell them. They’re not even used to constructive criticism as they’ve been mollycoddled through school and university. You have to be so delicate in how you phrase things.”

The cost of these sick days is also striking. Last year, sick days cost the economy £43 billion a year, and cut the annual incomes of those affected by up to £2,200 a year.

The Institute for Public Policy Research said sickness was a factor in half the people leaving work and had a marked impact on an individual’s income and job prospects.

Psychologist Tobba Vigfusdottir is the founder of workplace wellbeing platform Kara Connect and an expert on the mental wellbeing of Generation Z – those born between 1997 and 2012, so are now aged 11-27.

She does not believe that destigmatising mental health has caused a spike in it. And she feels that schools and employers have a duty to understand Gen Z.

She says: “The older Gen Zs are now in work, so we know what is happening.

“Often they are just anxious about their role, where it is leading and why it’s important. They are afraid of change, so they need to know more about their job.

“Employers are relatively new to seeing this, but they need to be more like parents than old-fashioned employers.

“If they do this, then I am sure this generation will thrive. Businesses need this generation, so they have to adapt to it.”

Vigfusdottir believes that poor mental health – particularly among girls and young women – is largely down to social media.

Stressed anxious young woman with smartphone, holding head in hands while sitting with closed eyes on chair
Research shows that girls use social media and 'doom-scroll' for longer, says psychologist Tobba Vigfusdottir - Moment RF

According to the Coalition for Youth Mental Health in Schools, by the age of 17 nearly a quarter of young women in England have had a mental health disorder. Nearly a third of girls aged 16-18 have self-harmed.

She says: “Research shows that girls use social media and doom-scroll for longer.

“And when they get to a certain age, it can become very damaging for their mental health and self-esteem.

“We parents have a duty to stop children being addicted to this. We have enough evidence to show that it affects how the brains develop.”

She adds that there is confusion over the idea that people are talking about mental health more than ever.

She says: “From my research, talking about problems does help people. We know that picking up a phone and talking to a friend for eight minutes makes the world feel better, but younger people struggle to do this.”

It is, of course, a puzzling topic. As a parent of a 13-year-old, I do worry when she comes home from school talking about anxiety, depression and other mental health topics. There is a fear in me that she is being exposed to something that will make her think she also has, or should have, a problem.

Obviously in my generation (I am 44), we were never exposed to this. And in my early 20s, when I suffered depression and debilitating insomnia, I never felt I could talk about it at work, and duly went in each day. It never once crossed my mind to not go to the office.

Surely this is the better way to approach things? For where would I be if I hadn’t put the hours in in my early 20s? But some psychologists believe this is the wrong way to approach the matter.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, a workplace psychologist at Manchester Business School, believes the younger generations are being unfairly tarnished. He says the issue of mental health and work is becoming increasingly politicised but shouldn’t be.

“The idea that people are flaky or ‘woke’ or lazy is ridiculous. There are real problems in the world: first the pandemic, then the cost of living, energy bills, two wars, recession. There are so many adverse life events and it makes people feel more anxious and less secure.

“If people talk about their mental health issues, and get early and appropriate intervention, chances are they may be able to return to work sooner. But the problem is governments don’t invest in it, and many small companies are not able to do this.

“Of course, some may say that people should just go to work with anxiety and other mental health problems, but if they do this, chances are they will not do a very good job. So what’s the point?”


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