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There is no doubt we have a mental health crisis among young people in America.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that teens view depression and anxiety as the most significant problem among their peers, with 70% labeling it a “major problem,” and only 4% saying it’s “not a problem.” 

This dovetails with a 2018 survey from the American College Health Association, which found that almost two-thirds of students had “felt overwhelming anxiety” at least once in the last twelve months. 

In the same survey, 87% of college students expressed that had felt “overwhelmed” by all they had to do at least once in the last 12 months.

Here’s two things that are not causing the incidence of anxiety and depression to increase among young people 1. Smartphones. 2. Helicopter parenting.

Researchers Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski ran hundreds of thousands of statistical analyses on the same data set used by Jean Twenge when she posited that smartphones were destroying a generation. They found thousands of different plausible and defensible interpretations of the same data, including one dataset that showed, “the negative effect of wearing glasses on adolescent well-being is significantly higher than that of social media use.”

As Sarah Rose Cavanagh pointed out in a guest post for this space, Twenge’s correlations are not convincing when it comes to proving causation.

In their book Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff blame the crisis on a culture of “safetyism” as practiced by well-resourced families engaging in helicopter parenting. 

But the Pew data shows that concerns about anxiety and depression span all income demographics, with teens from households making under $30,000 per year even showing somewhat higher levels of concern over anxiety and depression in their community versus teens in households with incomes over $75,000 per year (70% to 67%).

So what is the proximate cause of all this anxiety and depression?

School, money, their futures. Students live inside a culture of scarcity and precarity, where the road to success seems narrow, they believe a single misstep can ruin one’s chances, and even those who are relatively fortunate fear falling from favor.

The Pew data says as much. Students aren’t being coddled, they’ve been defeated, often by school itself. 

These teens almost universally express a desire for a future in which they have “a job or career they enjoy,” with 95% of them say this is “extremely or very important”to them.[1]

At the same time, 61 percent of teens say they feel “a lot” of pressure to get good grades. Only 12% say they feel “not too much” or no pressure at all to get good grades. 

At the New York Times, Brad Wolverton notes that mental health professionals believe that today’s students “have experienced financial burdens on a different scale than many of their predecessors. They have great uncertainty about their career prospects and feel pressure to excel academically or risk losing job opportunities.”

Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Jed Foundation (a non-profit dedicated to protecting mental health among teens and young adults), told Wolverton, “There’s a much more radical feeling that you’re a winner or a loser. That’s put tremendous pressure on college students and is feeding a lot of the anxiety we’re seeing.”

Wolverton reports how college mental health services are responding to this crisis by staffing up and implementing rapid responses to students having acute mental health problems. Students now expect colleges to be prepared to help them with any mental health difficulties.

It’s a good thing that colleges are responding proactively to this problem, but these moves do little to nothing to attack the problem at its roots.

Schooling must change. A 2015 survey by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence revealed that 75% of the words students used to express their current emotions towards school were negative: stressed, tired, bored.

We can do much to make school significantly less likely to make students anxious. We can end the “college and career ready” rhetoric that has trickled down as far as Kindergarten. We can consider student anxiety as we build our pedagogies. In Why They Can’t Write Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, I lay out how and why I believe privileging student choice and agency can help mitigate some of the toxic effects of schooling culture that privileges compliance, and subjects students to high stakes assessments and near constant surveillance. These are just a couple of those “other necessities.”

Instead of centering school around “achievement,” we can focus on student engagement, which drops every year between 5thand 11thgrade.[2]In 5thgrade, 74% of students report being “engaged” in school. By 11thgrade, more students are “actively disengaged” (34%) than “engaged” (32%).

I’d love to see school reformers attack this problem with the same fervor they’ve directed toward raising test scores. They may even be surprised how test scores go up as school is organized around helping students thrive in all dimensions of the human experience without being constantly measured and judged.

But pedagogical approaches will only go so far, and increasing emergency counseling services does nothing to address the source of the increasing anxiety and depression.

Initiatives like the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice are doing a lot of good by directly intervening to provide students resources they need to complete college. We need more of this.

But this isn’t enough either. 

Here’s something that might help: a national minimum wage of $15. Writing at the New York Times, Matthew Desmond, sociologist and author of Evictedshares researchshowing how a $15 dollar minimum wage works as an antidepressant, sleep aid, diet, stress reliever, and contraceptive preventing teenage pregnancy. 

What would a $15 minimum wage do for students who must work to support themselves and pay tuition?

When I matriculated to the University of Illinois in 1988, it took about five weeks of full-time minimum wage work in the state to pay a year’s tuition. 

Even when the Illinois minimum wage rises by a dollar next January 1 to $9.25 per hour, it will take over 48 weeks of full-time minimum wage work in the state to pay a year’s tuition. Raising the minimum wage to $15 reduces that number to 30 weeks of full-time work, not nearly as good as the deal I got 30 years ago, but it’s an improvement.

What if we went further? How about the first two years of post-secondary education being tuition-free? That reduces the total tuition cost of a four-year degree at the University of Illinois from $66,000 to $80,000 to between $33,000 and $40,000 (depending on major). That’s about 14 months of minimum wage work to pay for a four-year degree, not as good as the five to six months of full-time minimum wage work it took when I was in college, but hey, progress!

I could go on, but hopefully this gives a sense of the kind of burdens we’re placing on younger generations when it comes to pursuing opportunity. Not only have we made school into a gauntlet, we’ve placed massive financial hurdles in front of them as they pursue their educations. These burdens effect all but the wealthiest families.  

No wonder students are anxious and depressed. The idea that students are coddled, or addled by the internet are convenient scapegoats that allow us to ignore reality, we’ve set up a crap system and are giving students a crap deal.

In terms of the money, we’ve been penny wise and pound foolish. The human cost of all this mental health suffering is tremendous, but so is the raw dollars and cents. If we redirect our resources towards prevention and opportunity, we may find that things like a $15 minimum wage, free college, student loan forgiveness, and access to health care are more affordable than we think.[3]

Untethering from our phones and practicing free-range parenting may have some tangible benefits, but to believe these things will solve the crisis strikes me as dangerously naïve.

I wonder how much longer we'll waste time and money nibbling at the edges of the problem.



[1]Only 11% of this this supposed Instagram-obsessed generation expresses a desire to be famous.

[2]Engagement ticks up very slightly in 12thgrade as students see the light at the end of the tunnel.

[3]Here’s a Twitter thread where I theorize that the failure of wages to keep pace with gains in productivity is correlated to increases in anxiety and depression.