Nineteen Millionth Nervous Breakdown

by James A. Bacon

Two dozen students occupied the central lobby of James Madison University’s Alumnae Hall for 90 minutes last week. The group issued a list of demands, the most notable of which was increased funding and staff for the Counseling Center. Protest leaders read from some 50 testimonies submitted by students, reports the student newspaper The Breeze.

“I’ve been struggling with depression and suicide thoughts on and off since I was 14 years old,” one testimony read. “All that changed at the beginning of last semester. My suicidal thoughts got really bad. I would go days without sleeping, and I had no idea how to handle classes when all I could think about was taking my own life.”

Another letter expressed the difficulty the writer and others have felt at JMU. “Our mental state,” it said, “is on the fritz.”

A graduate student urged faculty to disregard class-attendance guidelines and restrictions on test makeups. “That’s detrimental to student’s health and completely ignores the nuance of existence…. These sorts of things are barriers to students that are extraordinarily harmful.”

The JMU protest is no outlier. College campuses across the country are dealing with unprecedented levels of mental illness, and students are pressing for special accommodations. At the University of Virginia, for instance, a large percentage of the student population is classified as “disabled,” in many cases meaning that they are paralyzed by anxiety and depression. Citing these “disabilities,” many seek more than the usual time allotted to take tests and exams.

I recognize that mental illness was hushed up fifty years ago when I was in high school and college. I do recall incidents — a teenage acquaintance who committed suicide, a dormitory mate who literally drank himself to death by polishing off a bottle of grain alcohol — which remind me that mental illness has long been part of the human condition. The capacity for anxiety and depression is encoded in the human genome. But I don’t recall mental illness on anything like the scale we see it today. Something has changed to make mental illness more ubiquitous.

What is causing this epidemic?

One possible explanation is social-structural in nature. A starting point is to understand the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon, to borrow a phrase from Robert D. Putnam’s sociological classic of 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s thesis was that Americans were losing their social connections.  They signed fewer petitions, belonged to fewer fraternal organizations, attended church less often, met with friends less frequently, and even socialized less with family members. They were bowling more than ever — but not in leagues in which socializing took place.

Humans evolved over millions of years as social creatures. We depended upon social connections for group survival, for acquiring mates, for raising children, for perpetuating our genes. Our emotional armature evolved as an adaptation, giving us rushes of dopamine and serotonin for pro-social behaviors and punishing anti-social behavior. As the sense of community has eroded, along with the deeply enmeshed social connections associated with community, more individuals than ever experience loneliness. The loneliness induced by structural changes in society have been aggravated, no doubt, by the retreat into digital and social media, and compounded by the social isolation dictated by policies designed to combat COVID.

Another possible explanation is cultural in nature. Americans have embraced values and ideologies that make them more vulnerable to mental illness. Once upon a time, Americans saw themselves as rugged, resilient, and capable of bouncing back from hardship. Americans thought it beneficial to expose children to adversity — the idea that what does not kill me makes me stronger. Competition was good. Failure was acceptable if it goaded children into greater effort.

Parents today seek to shelter their children from hardship and setbacks of any kind. The “self esteem” movement preaches that children need to feel good about themselves. Every kid gets a trophy for participation. As a society, Americans cultivate victimhood as a form of moral superiority. Students become paralyzed by micro-aggressions and retreat into safe spaces. Snowflakes are rewarded for their emotional fragility. When young people experience anxiety and depression, they aren’t told to get over it. Rather, their conditions are validated and medicated.

I’ll toss out one more explanation for consideration. In cultures with traditional values, everyone was expected to conform to pre-set sexual and gender roles. If you had male genitalia, you were deemed a male, and you were expected to assume male roles. Similarly, biological females were expected to assume female roles. Traditional values made life difficult for the 5% or so of the population that we would now label as gay or transgender, but it worked for the other 95%.

Women were the first to break from this traditional pattern. They insisted upon, and won, the right to choose whether to pursue careers, become stay-at-home moms, or seek a balance of the two. Women enjoyed opportunities they had not had before. But having opportunities entailed making choices, and making choices could induce anxiety. Then came the gay movement. Gays not only enjoyed freedom from scorn and ostracism, their sexual identity came to be regarded as entirely socially acceptable. But, then, adolescents had to decide if they were straight or gay. Then came the transgender movement. Transgenders are now gaining social legitimacy. And now adolescents must to decide how they “identify.” American society has now reached the point of absurdity. Today adolescents must decide if they are cisgender, transgender, non-binary, intersex, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, agender, gender expansive, or gendervoid (to use the taxonomy in this Women’s Health article).

Today, American youth must choose from a bewildering set of identity options. No wonder so many are confused, anxiety-prone and depressed!

If Americans feel their social structure and politics are falling apart, there’s likely an underlying reason: collectively, we are experiencing (to borrow an old-fashioned phrase immortalized by the Rolling Stones in “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown”) a nervous breakdown. But the breakdowns are not happening to just a few. They’re happening to millions.