A Flood of Voices: Millennials and Mental Health, by Vanessa Hall

It’s difficult to say anything these days. I’m not talking about some supposed political correctness ripping across the academic and corporate landscape, or on the other hand, the trolling hordes descending with impotent rage on anyone who conveys that supposed correctness, but the simple fact that there’s an overflow of information, and a corresponding flood of contradictions.

So when I talk about mental health, among millennials or more generally, I feel that I’m opening a can of worms with all the alarm bells ringing that the opening of such a can tends to sound. You can put “millennials” and “mental health” together safely enough; you can even put “millennials have mental health issues” in a complete sentence and have few consequences to face up against. But when you add because to that sentence, the worms start to writhe.

This is understandable – although pointing out this understanding seems to be vital to any dialogue, almost a peace offering, which both calms and bothers me – because mental health is a subject affecting more people than anyone seems to admit, apart from millennials, the group which most interests me (here, another peace offering may be required, and also clarification: my focus in this essay centres around millennials born no earlier than the 1990s, and around not specific mental diseases but any psychological stressors that can have a damaging effect on daily function). Although I have no doubts that earlier generations had their own struggles, and that these struggles have been documented and processed in various forms over the decades, it seems that millennials, and the kind of adolescence that this generation continues to represent, have the worst of it. Why is this?

What’s strange is that there is no real consensus. We know that there is a problem – which is good – and that by simply Googling the word “millennial” you’ll probably find various tales of woe from the first page of results; but understanding the why, understanding the because is altogether harder to answer, even for the almighty Google. Of course, I neither demand nor expect a singular answer for such a broad topic – it would be wrong to suggest that one exists – but it’s certainly interesting to consider that although the effects of mental health issues are so often alluded to, their causes rarely are.

Living conditions seem the only consistent suggestion – limited to very specific types of conditions and made with about as much conviction as the quiet guy forced to speak in a university seminar. Millennials are the first generation in a very long time faced with worse living conditions than the generation before them. And from this truth we get a long list of why living conditions have or are declining, but still very little about mental health itself. Has anybody asked millennials what’s getting them down? More pressingly, do they even know themselves?

I know the importance of admitting a problem to begin with, and the bravery it takes to admit association with that problem. It’s a strong step forward that people are talking about it at all – but there has to be more. Even the bravery I speak of has its own meanings and implications: the bravery to associate oneself with mental illness in a society consisting of, among others, millennials; the risk of discomfort and stigma in a society consisting of, among others, millennials. Is it not possible that the cause of many of these issues stem not just from wonky economies and political figures mucking it all up for the new generation – certainly real issues, but perhaps not as unique to millennials as many are led, or would like, to believe – but the infinitely complex factors surrounding the societal values that millennials themselves propagate?

Is it necessary, at this point, to make known the fact that I’m a millennial with mental health issues? Is it proper to make another peace offering? I feel sure that the rules, spoken and otherwise, surrounding topics such as this stifle conversation and ultimately make aid and awareness, even on an individual basis, incredibly difficult. Mental health is a delicate issue, demanding respect and good sense, and of course there is no end to the assholes, their concentration particularly high and bitter online, who have something to say which invariably hurts and little else. But for the rest of us, it’s as if we’re so frightened to be considered one of those assholes that we go out of our way to prove our innocence. Then we talk about living conditions, the economy, the government, and everything else; except, it seems, mental health.

People forget. This happens with astonishing frequency and at an astonishing rate, and goes hand in hand with a very short frame of reference. The fact is that most people can’t picture, can’t even begin to imagine what human life was like as late as fifty years ago. Further than that, it’s all but impossible. We can’t imagine a life without Netflix, without mass transit, without the pill. Today’s values, no matter how superior to the past, are difficult to reconcile with yesterday’s, and this in turn makes it difficult to better understand the problems facing millennials today.

The internet is an obvious choice of scrutiny; but then again, is it? It’s long become rare for the online world – not specific parts of it, or specific hateful groups, but the sphere in general – to be placed in front of a critical eye, because it’s already so entrenched in everything we do. And it’s not just social media: if you want a business, you’re going to need a website. If you want journalism, you’re going to need Google. If you want to keep up-to-date, you’re going to need the internet. The inherent usefulness of the internet, which can hardly be called into question, makes us blind to the problems it can bring, particularly for the first generation to have ever grown up with it, and from a young age.

This isn’t to say that the online world in itself is a problem. The internet isn’t a malignant entity capable of inflicting harm – it’s not capable, generally speaking, of doing anything by itself. The point, rather, is that it brings a whole host of values and methods in which to navigate the world, and that these can be cause for discontent as well as discontent’s opposite. More than this is a painful but obvious conclusion: when we talk about, for instance, the pressure that Facebook and other social media networks place on ‘being cool’ and ‘not missing out,’ what we’re really talking about is the pressure people place on other people. The young mess with the young, just as they always have; only the tools have changed. And certainly, Facebook may want your attention, and copious ad revenue, but it doesn’t want your sanity. Neither do other people, it has to be said, but other people can be more callous about it than tech firms.

On the other end of the technological scale is religion, or rather, the lack of it. I strongly oppose both the promotion of religious organisation and the prohibition of it, and while a stronger case can be made in favour of the latter, it’s important to note what religion has done for people in the past. Although I’ve never been blessed or cursed with the presence of faith myself, I’ve seen it, placid, in other people, and in these people it’s clear that it’s an unparalleled source of order and reassurance. Again, while I have no interest in perpetuating religious faith, regardless of its benefits, it seems to me worth understanding what religion, or in this instance the general absence of it in the western millennial, can have on mental health. Without a religious core to base one’s life around, many drift – not necessarily dangerously or undesirably, but in ways that for some can amplify the countless everyday problems that exacerbate mental health conditions.

We switch to other outlets. Jesus is replaced by Lady Gaga – or whoever it is currently doing the rounds in the music world, the movie world, the worlds of mass entertainment and mass media. It may seem like a point so closely associated with the rantings of angry old people, which is true enough; only it doesn’t have to be looked at as they might, as a point of values. Instead we might simply consider the mental ramifications of it: the problems inherent to looking at some star – a strangely hollow term, I’ve come to feel – and know or seem to know that there’s no way in hell to match up to it. Some woman prances across a stage, and her admirers – moved to tears of adulation at the mere sight of her in the flesh – wonder just how much of their lives they’ve missed when the concert is over.

It’s not just starstruck teens; even the most die-hard grow out of this phase eventually. This is true of previous generations (there was a time when The Beatles meant something, or so I hear, although what I see now are men with strange haircuts singing painfully cheesy lyrics; no doubt our own celebrities will be looked at with bemusement by future generations) but a pronounced difference is that today’s youth struggles far more to reconcile with the realities, often bland, often disappointing, of normal life. It’s harder to settle – another hollow term, and one that seems intrinsically important to protest, to fight against – and this isn’t surprising, because we’ve seen it in films, heard it in songs, and been told by our own families that we shouldn’t. Yet the realities of life nearly always involve a degree of it.

Yes, there should be more opportunities, and less barriers. No, nobody should have to dive headfirst into commitments at young ages, whether social, professional or even academic. Millennials need time to develop, to plot their own course – but there comes a time when everyone, except the very fortunate and very foolish, needs to follow this course to its logical conclusion. It doesn’t have to feel like death: and yet, for so many, it so often can – a kind of forfeit.

In speaking of mostly isolated elements – the internet, religious faith, celebrity phenomenon and its effects – there is a danger of implying that any one of these, either alone or combined with each other, are defining factors in the mental health debate. This is not my point, but rather that attention should be drawn to these topics where there is currently very little; and more than that, to millennial culture in general, of which these elements are so abundantly a part of. Discussions of the culture of any period often lead to a chicken-and-egg scenario, or in this case producer-and-consumer: do millennials place a demand on producers to create certain things for them to consume, or do producers place a demand on millennials to consume certain things? As ever, both forces are at work; but with more information available to them than ever before, we have to acknowledge that millennials have plenty of power to choose their own path, if they’re strong enough.

It’s so difficult, because everyone’s watching. In the 21st century, there is no such thing as starting over. It’s not even a matter of simply deactivating that Facebook account, deleting that Snapchat app, because the ethos, the culture, the way of life so deeply ingrained in adolescence continues to follow one around, no matter where one goes or what one does. The job may be enjoyable enough – but would you want your friends to know about it? The partner may be great – but would you upload a photo of the two of you together? The holiday may scratch an itch – but does it really sell an image of what is so important to millennials everywhere: an image of freedom?

I’m all for demanding more. Fuck the government? Now more than ever, yes. Fuck the rich? Them, too (unless they prance about onstage). But when such demands come at the expense of mental wellbeing, when the internet is scoured for dirt with the same self-destructive vehemence as the trollish hordes with the impotent rage, one has to wonder not only if it’s worth it, and not only whether this is the right way to go about it, but if balance should be prioritised first.

And what of status? The lack of it is surely oppression, and for millennials with less job opportunities, less money and less property ownership, this is a truth crossing many of the boundaries we often view the topic in. But when we explore issues of status, we seem more concerned in making it easier to attain it – a paradox in more ways than one – as opposed to dismantling the systems that make status so important to begin with. Among previous generations, the automobile was a status symbol: among millennials, it’s the iPhone. This isn’t to say iPhone ownership is a mind-deteriorating problem in itself, but it is proof that the same social systems of arbitrary evaluation, arbitrary judgement are still there, as entrenched in culture and psyche now as they ever were.

These layers, composite and vast, create an image that goes far beyond what, if anything, we normally associate with mental health issues. A flurry of factors come together to amplify what for previous generations may have stopped at intermittent periods of depression, burgeoning into what threatens to be a widespread crisis in only a few short years into the future. Without the promise of the afterlife and with the loss of status and freedom, perceived or otherwise, that it brings, we fear old and even middle age on a seemingly daily basis. With so much information at our fingertips, we’re tuned in too closely to the apparently insurmountable problems facing every corner of the globe, with no time or space to care for ourselves. With every event turned into a photo opportunity and popularity content, our lives begin to cement far earlier than they should, even though this is exactly what most of us would like to avoid. And as every twitch of expression and emotion is interpreted and evaluated by those around us, even without malice, the world can become a lonely and sleepless place.

As I reach the end of this essay, I offer what I will now call a disclaimer: that depression and mental health issues in general are broad topics, with countless causes and effects in their sufferers, and that there is no way to provide a cohesive analysis to cover all of them. Some suffer because of financial worries; some because of academic pressure; some from the multitude of social issues which, it has to be said, affect all generations that have come before; and some suffer simply because of the chemical imbalances in their brain. But if we choose to limit what we say in fear of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, we cannot help anyone; if we choose to speak only when we know every detail of what has been said before, we only repeat the dialogue, not add to it. Mental health is an ugly thing and it is my wish to see it alleviated or removed in those whom it affects; but we also have to understand that by creating a culture of fear around the exploration of the topic, we assist no one in their thoughts or comprehension.

The answer is never easy. Sometimes there isn’t one, as far as right and wrong, as far as binary responses are concerned. But sometimes talking it over is important in order to advance at all. We cannot allow the answer to the question to always be ‘it just is,’ a simple catch-all, however well-meant, for seemingly everyone and no one. We cannot insist, when asked, that it’s “difficult to say” – it certainly is, but not impossible to make connections. To simplify and condense is to offer a response at once meaninglessly honest and coldly ineffectual. A flood of voices can be contradictory and confusing, but what is worse is a drought of them, a landscape where out of fear or sensitivity nobody says anything at all. We must concede that there is rarely one answer to any one matter, and we must strive to understand before speaking out of turn. But a culture of silence is a worrying prospect, because if there exists any universal truth about this issue, it is that silence will do nothing to either comprehend mental illness or aid those it affects.

Vanessa Hall studied Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of Westminster. She keeps busy.