Somehow, sometime in the past several years, I crossed some invisible line from “young adult” to simply “adult.” Polite strangers call me “ma’am” at least as often as they call me “miss.” Shopping at Forever 21 now seems scandalously inappropriate. And I can’t remember the last time I was still awake to watch Saturday Night Live. Now that I seem to be old enough to complain about the younger generation (They think women’s empowerment is posting bikini-clad selfies! They use social media excessively! Their pivotal relationship conversations take place over text message!), it seems only fair that I also recognize the strengths of this cohort. And they do have tremendous strengths.
Teenagers and young adults these days, for the most part, have grown up in an era where it is socially acceptable, even encouraged, to speak openly about mental health issues. Just about every high school and college student who walks into my office has at least a couple of friends with mental health diagnoses. Most of my patients have one or more members of their extended family, if not their immediate family, who has dealt with a mental illness. And they know this because they talk openly about it.
And that excessive use of social media I complained about a minute ago? Well, social media has allowed famous people to speak candidly to a wide audience about their experiences with mental illness, seeking treatment, and ultimately recovering. Actress Kristen Bell has struggled with depression. Writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham has received treatment for OCD. Singer Demi Lovato has spoken openly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her recovery from an eating disorder. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, has chronic anxiety which he is able to control with therapy and medication. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a diagnosis of ADHD. These individuals have been extremely successful in their professions and have had the courage to speak publicly about their psychiatric problems.
Even more courageous than these celebrities, though, are the regular people who attend school, play sports, hold down jobs, pay bills, raise families, volunteer in their communities, and maintain friendships while also dealing with mental illness. These are the people who have a lot to lose from the stigma surrounding mental health issues. These are also the people who have the most to gain from breaking down the stigma.
The younger generation is fighting this stigma. Australia’s National Youth Mental Health foundation has created an organization called Headspace dedicated to supporting adolescents and young adults with mental illnesses as well as combating stigma surrounding these issues. In the UK, Prince William, Princess Kate, and Prince Harry have created Heads Together, a charity dedicated to fighting stigma surrounding mental illness and improving the mental well-being of all citizens. Here in the US, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is running a Stigma-Free campaign.
The message of these organizations is simple and straightforward: mental illness is common and treatable. Mental health problems are as much a part of the human condition as any other health problem. Untreated mental illness can have dire effects on the individual, on the family, on the community, and on society as a whole. People who have psychiatric diagnoses can overcome them and live fulfilling, successful, meaningful lives. Learn about it. Talk about it. Seek treatment when needed, and support others in doing so as well. Silence and shame help no one.
I can’t recall ever hearing these messages as a teenager or young adult. If these messages existed at all back in my day, they were eclipsed by the OJ Simpson trial, overshadowed by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, drowned out by the Spice Girls and ignored amidst episodes of Friends. It is an honor and a privilege for me to treat the teens of this generation, who live their lives with more knowledge, understanding, and acceptance than the generation before them.
If you’d like to read an interesting perspective from a highly experienced clinician from a previous generation who has over 40 years of experience treating anxiety and eating disorders, see Dr. Paula Levine’s blog.