What is to blame for poor mental health among young people?

This week’s issue of The Student is dedicated to student mental health, something that I know every student at university will have been touched by, whether personally or through friends and family.
It is first important to distinguish between diagnosed mental health conditions and mental wellbeing. The more we learn about mental health, the more this line is blurred and complicated with understanding of biological or societal causes, but it is still crucial to acknowledge that there is a difference.

The growing de-stigmatisation of mental health conditions is so, so important, and a massive step in the right direction, but we must not make the mistake of conflating all unhappiness with depression, or all stress with anxiety. This distinction is complicated by the barriers to diagnosis and access to medication, as well as the fact that mental health is still not fully understood by the medical and scientific establishment.

The normalisation of certain mental health vocabulary, especially on social media, to pathologise normal feelings, can undermine that reality of having a mental health condition. Telling people with clinical depression to ‘go for a walk’ or ‘do some self care’ is not helpful. For many, many people, their mental health is a diagnosable condition, which must be treated with medication, and the traumatic realities of this must be acknowledged.

This is not to say that if you have not been diagnosed with a mental health condition you can’t struggle with poor mental health, but to establish that there is a difference. Depression is not just feeling a bit low, it can be feeling physically numb and unable to leave your bed. Bipolar disorder can mean feeling unable to know if you are happy or manic, unable to control impulses and decisions, not just mood swings. The difference between normal sadness, stress, emotional fluctuations and mental health disorders must be established.

Because I do not have a diagnosed mental health condition, I am not going to write about that: it is not my lived experience. However, I do not think it is undermining the experience of mental illness to also examine the structural reasons why student and youth wellbeing is currently so low. We are constantly hearing about rising poor mental wellbeing among the youth and students, but why is this?

Reason number one: capitalism. And before I am accused of politicising mental wellbeing: mental wellbeing and mental health are inherently political. They are political in the fact that the poorest and most marginalised groups in society suffer the most from poor mental health, and yet are the least likely to have easy access to treatment.

They are political in the discrimination against those who suffer with their mental health, and the lack of workplace accommodation for our minds. And they are political because we live in a society that is structurally extractive, that will never, in its current form, be beneficial towards mental wellbeing.

The prevailing attitude of work as hard and as long as you can, and only then will you be a valuable human being, is pretty much the opposite of conducive to good mental wellbeing for anyone except a robot. Internalised capitalism is something I have struggled with massively, struggling to separate my value and worth as an individual from my productivity and how much work I get done. Commodifying and commercialising joy, as well as every other emotion one can think of, so that mental wellbeing becomes something you can buy, is selling us a lie. Alienation from our land and our communities. The idea that humans and nature are separate, disconnected spheres, alienates us from the land that has always sustained us physically and mentally. A focus always on competition rather than collaboration, setting us against each other. Social media. Austerity. The list goes on…

Not to sound apocalyptic, but it is no wonder mental wellbeing is low when we live in a society that puts human contentment at the bottom of its priority list. Even just acknowledging this in itself is important, so people do not feel alone or ‘weak’ for struggling.

To make things worse, if you were raised in the UK, like me, you were also inducted into perhaps the world’s most emotionally constipated culture. A culture that idolises a stiff upper lip, which essentially means bottling up all your emotions until you no longer feel at all. A culture that tells us a strong person is someone who never shares, never acknowledges emotion, and definitely doesn’t go to therapy. We live in a country where the royal family was seemingly lauded for not crying at relatives’ funerals? I’m sorry but what the actual fuck- why are we still congratulating emotional repression in the 21st century?

For young people, on top of all of this, we seem to have been born into a time of crisis. Not to make us all sound like the snowflake generation we are often painted as, but now is a pretty challenging time to be a young person. We are currently experiencing one of countless recessions and financial crises in our lifetime, and looking into a bleak financial future. Generations before us caused the climate crisis, and yet we are already seeing the devastating impacts of it, with little recourse to push back, and ever worsening forecasts of an apocalyptic future. Being a student is supposedly meant to be a time to both learn and to be carefree, enjoying a more relaxed version of life before joining the working world, and yet we are confronted daily with some terrifying issues.

As students, the university should be a space that supports us in improving our wellbeing in challenging contexts. Of course, changing to a more connected and humane society is a long term project, and not one that we will achieve as individuals. But, there are certainly ways the university could better support student wellbeing. As some of our articles this week explore, the many different types of therapy and counselling can be life-changing, and are genuinely radical tools to help us build resilience, manage our emotions and approach the challenges of life. Therapy should be accessible to all, and currently Edinburgh university is not providing that well enough to its students.

Offering counselling when someone is at their lowest is too late, and 4-6 sessions are not enough. Next, a more healthy working culture could be encouraged by the university. Despite efforts from individual staff members, Edinburgh’s institutional culture is one that prioritises grades over wellbeing, and encourages deeply unhealthy working practices. We would also benefit from a student union that actually has the power to advocate for us and support our needs.

Finally, we can all just put the effort in to help each other. After ranting about structural conditions, I know it may seem trite to end on a message of community and being compassionate, but that is something that we really can do as individuals. At least on a personal level, I have always found that an antidote to poor wellbeing can be found in community and connection, whatever that means to you.

We need to create the communities of care that we think the world needs, whether that means advocating for better mental health from the university, encouraging a friend to see a therapist or doctor for their struggles, or simply being a shoulder to cry on for someone struggling.