Imagine: It’s our society that is broken, not our kids

What we see as depression, anxiety, addiction and the growing mental health problem is a sign of a society that is sick. Unfortunately, our children are paying the price for it.

“Young people are so fragile nowadays,” this is something we get to hear a lot these days. It makes me visualise them as crumbly, breakable, brittle items of chinaware with the label ‘Fragile: Do Not Shake’.

As a father mansplained to me recently, “They are very weak, they have got it easy and that’s why they are like this — depressed, anxious, stressed out. In our times, we did not have the luxury of all this. We had to be strong and manage. But now you cannot say anything to these kids.” A part of me was annoyed with his quick dismissal of the growing mental health problem as a sign of weakness, but there was a small part of me that realised that in my exhausted moments even I have felt like this: “What is happening to our kids? Why can’t they get their act together?”

It does seem like we are in the midst of a mental health breakdown where almost every second child starting middle school is going through some “issues”. There is much talk about the “epidemic” of mental health problems reaching unprecedented proportions. We have been made to believe that it can all be understood as “chemical imbalance” but that does not hold much water in the face of growing research and begs the question, “Who has a chemically balanced brain and what does it look like?” To the point of being provocative, I can say it is pretty fictional.

Both these narratives do not work — neither can we place the blame on children for being weak or fragile, nor can we see the problem as “chemical imbalance” as that places the problem in the realm of the personal — situated in the person or the family (bad genes or bad parenting). What we are seeing as depression, anxiety, addiction and the growing mental health problem is actually a sign of a society that is sick. It is fraught with consumerism, affluenza (a hybrid of affluence and influenza) and gnawing competitiveness. Unfortunately, it is our children who are paying the price for it.

Johan Hari explains it well in his book, Lost Connections: “I started to see depression and anxiety as cover versions of the same song by different bands. The underlying sheet music is the same.” Disconnection and loneliness is the core theme of the sheet music they are playing from.

What do the young do with their sense of disconnection and despair? They try to numb it with whatever they can — nonstop gaming, shopping, social media obsession or high-risk behaviour like drinking, drugs or jumping into a series of “casual hookups”. And of course, we judge them and blame them for their “bad behaviour”, “addictions” or even “promiscuity” without really taking responsibility for creating a society that is pushing them into it with eyes wide shut.

And the ones who are most vulnerable are those who are seen as being different due to their wiring, sexuality, gender identity, looks, family background. These are the outcasts, who live on the fringes of society. As one child told me, “I feel invisible in school, as if I am a ghost. Everybody looks through me. Nobody knows the real me. My life is all about getting good grades, SATs and ACT scores.”

They have internalised the propaganda that the only way they are worth something is if they get into good colleges and have financially stable career. It is like we have inflicted third-degree burns on them and when they react with pain, we accuse them of being “so weak”.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the chilling statistics tell us that one in four young persons is struggling with depression or anxiety and that India tops the world in teen suicide. They are not causing this to themselves, we are bringing it on to them.

The problem is complicated, textured and multi-layered; however, the solution is not complex at all.

It is not them

First of all, we need to stop pathologising our kids and see them as the problem. Taking them to a therapist or starting them on medication is just a small part of the solution. We need to understand that their problem has social roots. A young man, I will call him Arjun, was struggling with crippling depression to the point that he was not able to go to college and spent most of his time locked up in his bedroom. It all started when he could not get into the college of his choice despite scoring 95 per cent in his Boards. His father suggested that they go for a trek in the mountains together, something that he had enjoyed as a kid. That trip changed everything for this young man as it helped him reconnect to all things that he loved – his relationship with his father, his passion for adventure sports and a clarity of what he wanted to do after college.

Let them be subversive

Arjun had always been a high achiever and his parents had hopes that one day he would finish his MBA and take on a high-paying job in a corporate firm. However, the depression was a turning point for them, “We realised that we had been pushing him to be somebody he was not.” The reason that the movie Gully Boy had such a huge appeal for the youth was how its main character, Murad, was able to express his angst against the dominant discourse through his gut-wrenching music. That was his vaccine against depression, and this is what they long for rather than our blame.  They need to connect to what gives them a sense of purpose and meaning (apna time aayega) and that will not come from the pressure-cooked boxes of success we build for them.

Make spaces for connections

We are hardwired neurologically, socially, spiritually to seek human connections where we get a sense of belonging, where our flaws, eccentricities, quirks are accepted and we can be ourselves. We need to build emotionally safe spaces which heal our children and reconnect them to their sense of agency, hopes and aspirations. In the present age, as we have been unable to provide it to them, they have sought it in the form of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Every ‘like’ on these social media forums is like a validation of their visibility and existence but we know they are unable to build authentic connections. We have to build safe, inclusive spaces in our homes, schools, colleges, neighbourhoods that are worthy of our children. It could be spaces where they explore art, theatre, music, photography, critical thinking, creative writing to seek connections and express their angst. For Arjun, it was reconnecting to nature which is not surprising as there is piles of research indicating that the disconnect with the natural world is impacting us. At the end of the day, we seem to have forgotten that we are living beings and our need to be in touch with nature is deeply wired into us. We are trapping our children in little artificial worlds and despair when they feel dissatisfied with life.

Until some decades ago, canaries were sent down into coal mines to test for gas leaks. Our children are like the canaries of our present time. We cannot blame the canaries for dying; we have created the toxic society in which they are struggling to survive.

Therefore, next time we want to dismiss our children’s woes with labels of fragility, weakness, or worse, “attention seeking”, let’s remember: they are not failing us, we are failing them. Nobody is going to come and sort this out for us. We have to do it ourselves. We have to be better and do better. Because as Nelson Mandela put it, “There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

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