Gunnar Åkerlind - Authorgunnar.åkerlind@osqledaren.se
Roisin Callaghan - Illustratorroisin.email@example.com
I can’t remember a time when headlines weren’t regularly filled with depressing titles. Warnings of a bleak future. About worsening ecological conditions or the increasing threat of global warming. The IPCC reports. The recent extinction of the white rhino. The bleaching of coral reefs worldwide. Not exactly instilling hope, especially in those who will inherit this world: Us; the youth.
Likewise, headlines often feature the theme of increasing mental unwellness among young people. “Screen time” and “Social media” often pose as answers to the question just as the simple possibility of greater recognition of mental health awareness does.
To give a clear example — take the google results for “Why do young people feel worse today?”. Examining the first four results — Why mental unwellness is increasing among you people — Folkhälsomyndigheten, Mind wants to nuance the debate about young people's mental health — Mind, Why do young people feel so bad? — Forte and New study about why young people feel bad — Prevent. Many repeat the ever constant thesis of phones and social media being the culprit, some repeat greater awareness or even too liberal diagnosis by physicians. The current state of the job market gets mentioned as well. However to me one crucial potential factor seems to often go overlooked: Worries about our future.
I have personally never suffered from any conventional cause of mental unwellness. No eating disorders, body complexes or bullying on social media. Yet my childhood and youth have had a near constant source of anxiety and worry. Anxiety attacks pained me back in elementary school and although they themselves stopped, their cause never stopped being constantly evident. These causes are no matter of temporary circumstances such as bullying or some over obsession about weight or looks (not meaning to belittle anyone with such issues, they are perfectly valid). The cause of my worries is a larger one and something far beyond my own size and ability to deal with. It seems to me that the very world I and all of you readers inhabit is approaching its very doom.
Although the subject of climate anxiety often is overlooked when discussing mental illness, its existence is a fact. According to a study by Avaaz, nearly half of global youth feel that climate anxiety is affecting their daily lives, 75% believe “the future is frightening”, roughly six out of ten believe their governments are not taking sufficient action and a staggering 39% have become “hesitant about having children”. This shows that this is no negligible issue. On top of the material effects of climate change, the awareness of its increasing effect on the planet is becoming a serious problem in itself.
Naturally there has always been instability. Wars, conflicts, famine and natural disasters have plagued humanity during all of our existence. The constant uncertainty of the cold war and the possibility of nuclear warheads falling down on everyone, gave our parent’s generation doubts about the future. However, these issues all had solutions, or at least the potential for a good ending. A conflict is a power struggle that could potentially be won by one side without nuclear winter (such as the cold war) and just as well natural disasters are temporary deviations from normality. It should be clear that the current situation is of a different character. An element has been removed from previous worries: the looming doom now seems certain — and permanent.
So far I have only mentioned ecological prospects as they remain most visible. Looking further, there is much more material to provide us youths with worry. For long, society has been viewed as a project of progress. Take Sweden for example: the last hundred years are a story of success for the common swede. Since the twenties, when prime minister Per Albin Hansson spoke of Folkhemmet (The Peoples’ Home) and a society for all of the people, a theme of improving conditions long reigned dominant. Many decades of progressive successes followed with some of the significant landmarks listed below:
Today societal progress is no longer a gift to be taken for granted. Folkhälsomyndigheten and Forte mention the worsening societal condition as a cause for mental unwellness among the young. The greater income gaps and the difficult job market for young people make the idea of society improving seem like fantasy, rather than the reality of the previous hundred years. This image has repeatedly been confirmed to me by perspectives shared by my parents, both directly and indirectly. My mother has time upon time compared today's back-and-forth political power struggles with her youth when every new year seemed better than the one before. My father indirectly strengthened this view by complaining about my previous struggles regarding finding a job. His presumption was that I simply didn’t try, while the reality was rejection upon rejection, despite lots of applications. He told stories of how teenagers in his day simply could walk up to the counter in an average store, ask for a job and then receive one. A stark contrast from today. Lastly, continuously during my childhood my parents have reminded me of the depressing reality of our generation being the first one in a long time to not have it better (but worse) than our parents.
Like with other youth, I find the increasing gaps between rich and poor, the job— and housing markets as well as the massive ecological problems as good reasons to worry. The path of society and its toll on the planet become sources of anxiety as they directly impact our material reality and the years which will make up our future.
In short: If it wasn’t apparent already, we are facing unprecedented challenges, and their weight on the consciousnesses of us who will have to deal with them takes its toll. Upon the novel aspects of modern society, such as phones and social media whose effects can be mitigated with moderation and personal choice, there is so much more that is beyond the ability of each individual, issues stemming from more fundamental material conditions. The problems of our reality might not have previously made themself apparent to all, but today their marks are left on the minds of our young. An unavoidable reminder that change is required.
This is depressing, no doubt about the matter. Perhaps you; the reader now feel even worse about the situation or you might have started worrying if you haven’t already. Despite all this, let this final comment shape the impression you are left with:
We humans are problem solvers and creators. We have for long achieved progress through struggle and have now arrived at a point where the tide might turn. From here on a new perspective is required. Like my former biology teacher always told us: “There are no problems, only challenges” (a perspective much needed when dealing with ecology). With your entire life ahead of you, make sure to use it for good. Seek guidance — through for example 80,000 hours, a non-profit organization that seeks to help you make the greatest possible impact with your career. Perhaps it might help you find direction, perhaps not. If it doesn’t seem enough: seek further, question the systems of our world and if they pose obstacles for progress then strive for changing them.
Rather than as something to let you down, use the notion of great challenges and regression as motivation to strive harder, dedicate yourself to progress and become the light that shines through the dark clouds of a world in descent.