By Eric Barrell

Something often left out of the discussion of mental health is the way that our society creates conditions that catalyze mental distress. Rising house prices, career uncertainty and the climate crisis have left much of Britain’s youth disenchanted with society and pessimistic about the future.

Mental health practices such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy encourage people to change their thinking to feel calmer and more optimistic about life’s challenges. These methods are often very effective in improving wellbeing, but can function as a mask to cover up the more systemic sources of people’s suffering.

Many young people feel disillusioned by a political system that doesn’t represent their views. Younger voters are part of the Millennial and Gen Z generations who came of age in the 2000s and 2010s and have dealt with the biggest impacts of the housing crisis to date.

Neoliberal business practices have crippled the future security and prosperity of the young. The prospect of ever being able to afford a house, easily paying off student debt, or being able to guarantee a future for one’s children with the threat of climate emergency – have radically shifted the priorities and political leanings of Britain’s youth.

The 2008 financial crash perpetuated a world of rising inequality and austerity that further disadvantages society’s most vulnerable. Individuals across the UK on both the left and the right, and from all age groups are fed up with political centrism, they seek more radical, populist candidates and solutions to these issues.

The voting record and results from the recent general election suggest that young people are set to feel even more disconnected from the government, and thus from society, than before.  The climate crisis and austerity aren’t given anywhere near as much attention in conversation regarding mental distress of young people as social media is.

I find myself being somewhat sceptical of the older generation who repeatedly reinforce narratives of social media being evil. They seem to use this as a platform to blame young people for being addicted to their smartphones and only caring about their image and superficial matters. It’s true that many of us need to change the way we interact with social media.

However, I find the suggestion that young people only care about Instagram likes and not ‘bigger issues’ patronising. To generation Z, who have grown up on the internet, issues like feminism, environmentalism and capitalist exploitation have been made more accessible and less confined to dusty academic tomes.

A lot of the problems facing today’s youth feel like impossible tasks to overcome

For those of us growing up in the British state sector, dealing with cuts to our education system and difficulty finding work after University, political engagement has become a necessity. More awareness of the multiplicity of hardships faced by young people is crucial to helping combat some of the exploitative systems that adversely affect us. Not being heard by the older generation and politicians who are supposed to represent us is disheartening and hugely affects our wellbeing.

I feel there needs to be a shift in how we look at mental health and its relation to our world in 2020. The reason why social media is addictive is because it is a world we can escape to that seems nicer than reality. It is designed that way by tech companies who want us to remain transfixed and engaged with their apps.

Instead of putting so much of the blame for young people’s mental distress on our lifestyles, more needs to be done to address the wider systemic issues that feed into these other problems.

A lot of the problems facing today’s youth feel like impossible tasks to overcome. The climate crisis is the biggest example of this. Most people are now aware of the statistics from the Carbon Majors Report in 2017: 71% of carbon emissions are caused by just 100 companies.

As much as we can try to make a difference by recycling or going vegan, I can see why many people feel nihilistic about the future. Not only are the younger generation being disadvantaged by increasing inequality exacerbating difficulties with housing and career success, but we also face an increasing fear of how the human population will survive as ecosystems become increasingly damaged by carbon emissions. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion seem to be a better bet for those wanting to make tangible change.

Putting pressure on governments and businesses to be aware of the crisis and urge them to stop damaging the planet in pursuit of excessive wealth could be a more viable solution. The limited response from many world leaders to the growing demands for the fossil fuel industry to be held accountable, suggests that protests are falling on deaf ears. But progress is being made slowly but surely.

Whether directly or indirectly, the mental health crisis across all age groups has its roots in the global systems that alienate us and make us disillusioned with the status quo. Only once we address the bigger issues of modern society can we understand how it affects our minds.

Image credit: Natasha Spencer

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