DR. MARTIN SCURR: Get a grip, Generation Snowflake! I know what’s causing the ‘rising tide’ of mental health issues among young people… and who’s to blame

‘Depressing’ is a word we use too often. But it’s the only way to describe a report published yesterday, which found that the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who are “economically inactive” has more than doubled in the past decade.

What was so shocking was that two-thirds of those surveyed said they suffered from poor mental health, and four in 10 said this was the main reason they weren’t working.

I must admit that my immediate reaction was: Real?

Is it really true that this generation is particularly vulnerable to mental health problems? That there is something unique about them, compared to older generations, that makes their lives so psychologically fragile? That these young people are heading into what should be the best years of their lives hampered by real mental health issues?

Of course not.

I fear that this ‘rising tide’ of mental health problems is largely caused by self-diagnosis and social media – combined with the medicalization of all human diseases, mostly for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies looking to sell new drugs.

As a doctor, I know how crippling mental health issues can be, and it is critical that those affected seek medical help and receive treatment.

It is also important that we destigmatize mental health, a topic that has been taboo for too long. And that includes talking about it openly, including on social media.

But deciding that you have a mental health problem based on a social media post is something different.

Yet we see it happening more and more, most recently in ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). It seems to me that celebrities are falling over themselves to announce their diagnosis, and in their wake there are plenty of people who decide that they suffer from it too.

Social media, self-diagnosis and over-medicalisation are at the root of a growing wave of mental health problems, according to Dr Martin Scurr

Let me emphasize again that I am not saying that ADHD is not a serious problem.

Of course it is. But there are clear criteria for diagnosing it, set out in the psychiatrists’ ‘bible’, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, including several ADHD symptoms that should have been identified as present before the age of 12.

However, what we are now seeing is ‘problems’ listed on social media sites as signs of ADHD being used to self-diagnose this serious condition.

For me, the bigger problem is anxiety, because so many more people seem to suffer from it.

People are naturally anxious; it is a trait that ensured that our ancestors, for example, were wary of predators and safe on the savannahs.

Anxiety and mood swings are part of the normal human experience and children and young people must face everyday adversity to learn to cope with disappointment. Yes, they are the generation defined by surviving Covid and lockdowns, and missing school. But I think every generation has its own unique challenges, some of which are more difficult to overcome than others.

As Professor Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent, put it: ‘What used to be known as the existential problems of being young – the breakdown of relationships, failure, not being part of something; the normal difficulties of finding your own way in life – are subdivided into mental health problems.’

He added: ‘If you have a mental health problem, how can you ever take responsibility for your own fate? So the normal difficulties of any workplace, tighter deadlines for example, become ‘stress’ and ‘depression’ instead.

Another problem for this generation is the constant attention to mental health issues.

One of the mainstays of mental health treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, a talk therapy based on the concept that our mood is determined, at least in part, by what we think about.

The idea is to change this thinking, and thus change the mood.

For example, patients with affective disorders (disorders associated with anxiety or depressive mood) can be taught to stop constantly thinking about their situation and feeling sad about their difficulties – whatever they may be – and to avoid these problems no longer turning relentlessly in their heads. This has been shown to improve mood.

It’s not that far removed from the ‘power of positive thinking’ school, although it might be better labeled as ‘reducing the damage from negative aspects of thinking’.

Likewise, thinking too much about mental well-being can have a negative effect.

And it may well be that the media – and social media – in doing a lot to destigmatize mental health, is now also training or sensitizing young people into thinking they have problems when they don’t.

There is something else going on with young people.

And I fear their parents are partly to blame. A book published on Mail+ this weekend, entitled Bad Therapy, suggests that ‘sensitive parenting and therapy’ had effectively damaged Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012 who are now in their 20s and teenagers.

The rush to “diagnose and accommodate, not punish or reward” has created “the loneliest, most anxious, depressed and anxious generation ever.”

The modern emphasis on protecting and safeguarding has brought us to the current situation where even the wrong use of pronouns makes some people ‘feel unsafe’.

This may sound harsh, but this generation of snowflake really needs traction. Their future mental well-being depends on it.