Being that the month of May is both Mental Health Awareness Month and the lesser-known National Teen Self-Esteem Month, there’s perhaps no better time to pay special attention to the mental health situations of ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and our youth. This May, as was the case with the last three, is an even better time than usual to check in on the mental health of those we hold dear due to the devastating emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, a poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that ninety percent of American adults feel that the country is mired in a mental health crisis, and the World Health Organization reported that the pandemic was responsible for a twenty-five percent increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression across the globe.
The Pressure of the Pandemic
Whether it was claiming lives, inspiring fear and anxiety regarding what the future holds, or putting people out of work, the pandemic made an already growing issue much, much worse. Excessive social media use, the unstable state of world affairs, and in the United States specifically, traumatic national events like mass shootings, police killings, racially motivated lynchings and the spiking rate of hate crimes have all contributed to the dismal status of our collective mental wellbeing.
I personally know several people who have taken extensive or even permanent breaks from watching and reading the news due to how regularly pessimistic it has become. When turning on the news or opening Twitter to simply stay informed can leave you trapped in a maelstrom of depression and despair, it may be reasonable to align with the majority and conclude that we, the world, and our minds are in crisis.
Youth at Risk
Although everyone’s mental health is at risk in times as trying as these, our youth find themselves in a particularly distressing situation. Much of Generation Z and all of Generation Alpha face the unprecedented circumstance of being reared entirely in the Internet age. That being so, despite the Internet’s seemingly endless array of beneficial uses, young people are always first in line to suffer the various ills associated with too much screen time. Their self-esteem and socialization skills are often the most at risk. And even when their social media use doesn’t affect their sense of themselves or how they interact with others, some are given to the practice of “doomscrolling,” or mindlessly exposing themselves to wave after wave of depressing news.
One of the most dangerous aspects of Internet and social media use is that its negative effects aren’t always immediately recognizable. Since they both play major roles in the daily lives of many young people, any negativity derived from them can feel so common and unextraordinary that it hardly seems present at all. Because of this, spending excessive time on the Internet seems significantly less harmful than other similarly depressing practices. If you only listened to sad songs and watched sad movies, it wouldn’t be very difficult to detect what’s been getting you down. Doing what everyone you know does on a daily basis, however, feels as simple as breathing. And finding fault with it is a more complicated task.
Of course, this is all the more reason to check up on the people you care about. If even they can’t tell when something is hurting them—and this is often the case with social media—being able to tell from the outside can be nearly impossible.
Talking About It
Additionally, half of Americans with mental illnesses are not receiving any form of treatment. Whether the people responsible for this statistic aren’t being treated by choice or because they lack access to mental health services, awareness is the name of the game when it comes to turning the tides. If we are afraid to talk about how we feel, to inquire into how others feel, to ask for and provide help when we’re able to—both the stigma and size of the current mental health crisis will grow indefinitely.
The United States is much too advanced a nation to continue struggling to address something as essential as mental health. It must be addressed in conversation, it must be addressed in our schools, and it must be addressed in policy. Everything in the range of human possibility begins and ends with the mind. We must stop at nothing to protect it.