There has been a glut of alarming articles coming out lately about the mental health crisis facing young people today. According to the stats the authors are quoting, these young people seem to have very little resilience and few abilities to cope with the ordinary stresses of their lives.
According to a document called the National College Health Assessment from 2016, there’s a lot to be concerned about, and people in the know have been raising the alarm.
A September 8, 2016 article by Simonia Chiose in the Globe and Mail, lays out some of the shocking details about today’s young people. Of the 44,000 students who completed the survey, “8 percent fewer students than in 2013 felt their health was very good or excellent,” and “the number of students saying they seriously considered suicide in the prior year was 13 per cent, up 3.5 per cent from 2013.”
In an October 18, 2016 article by Paul Attfield in the Globe and Mail, the writer quotes Tayyab Rashid, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough and co-chair of postsecondary student mental health with the Canadian Association of Colleges and Universities Student Services, who says that “trends I’ve seen is more severe cases, more chronic cases and more crises.”
Mr. Attfield goes on to quote Stanley Kutcher, a psychiatry professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who says that “the level of expectations, both from the students themselves and their families, has become a greater factor adding to stress in the past 15 years.” “The expectation is that everybody gets an A,” Kutcher says. “It’s a real issue. We’ve had grade inflation [in high school] for two decades.”
In an article for CBC News, dated September 26, 2017, the author, Amanda Pfeffer writes that a 2016 study by the Ontario University and College Health Association (OUCHA) shows terrifying results.
Pfeffer quotes Meg Houghton, the president of this association, who says, “I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, but the truth is, lives are at stake.”
This recent study demonstrates that “rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as suicide attempts are up from [the] first survey in 2013,” and Pfeffer highlights some major findings:
- 65 per cent of students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the previous year (up from 57 per cent in 2013).
- 46 per cent reported feeling so depressed in the previous year it was difficult to function (up from 40 per cent in 2013).
- 13 per cent had seriously considered suicide in the previous year (up from 10 per cent in 2013).
- 2.2 per cent reported attempting suicide in the last year (up from 1.5 per cent in 2013).
- Nine per cent reported attempting suicide sometime in the past (not restricted to last year).
Houghton says, “we’ve got a major crisis on our hands,” and that “many of us who oversee counseling services describe our day as using a finger to stop a flood and the demand for our services far outstrips our capacity to support students.”
In an May 2017 article for thestar.com, entitled “Demand for youth mental health services is exploding. How universities and business are scrambling to react,”the authors point out that not only colleges and universities are having to increase their mental health budgets, but that “a growing number of major Canadian corporations that employ young people, including Starbucks and Manulife, have dramatically increased mental health benefits in response to growing demand.”
The article also cites a new study from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which “reported emergency department visits by children and youth from 5 to 24 seeking mental health or substance abuse treatment rose 63 per cent and hospitalizations jumped 67 per cent between 2006 and 2016.”
This same article quotes Dr. Glenda MacQueen, a professor of psychiatry and vice-dean of the University of Calgary’s medical school. She states that, “youth today are under more pressure than ever before.”
What’s not mentioned in any of the above articles or studies is the underlying reason for the alarming increase of mental health problems in today’s young people. I suggest that it’s the epidemic of helicopter parenting that’s to blame.
While childhood abuse and neglect have been strongly correlated with adult rates of mental health and substance use disorders, it appears that middle-to-upper middle-class children are experiencing more helicopter parenting, while “over half of maltreatment related investigations (53%) in Ontario in 2013 involved a primary caregiver living in socioeconomic hardship,” according to a recent report by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.
According to an interview in the LA Times with Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, she saw this mental health crisis “in usually middle- to upper-middle-class families and beyond, with disposable time and money. Working-class, blue-collar, poor families — parents there don’t have the wherewithal to be cultivating their kids’ childhood. They’re worried about fundamental things like food and shelter. We learned that other four-year campuses were seeing the same thing. [My colleagues] who were not seeing this were at community colleges. Those students have a lot of self-reliance.”
Too many middle-to-upper middle-class parents these days are inadvertently undermining the mental health of their growing kids, and we’re seeing the results reflected in the above statistics.
When parents mistake coddling and bubble-wrapping their children for giving them love, they cause their kids unintended harm.
Kids need to learn how to think for themselves. They need to learn how to solve their own problems, cope with stress and bounce back from adversity. The coping and problem-solving skills that they’re taught in childhood are meant to equip them for a healthy and successful adult life.
Unfortunately, when parents are so anxious that they catch their child every time he or she is about to fall, the child never learns how to break their own fall or prevent him/herself from falling in the first place. When parents take over doing tasks that the child finds too difficult, the child never develops confidence and later on, becomes overwhelmed by the simplest of problems.
These anxious helicopter parents hover over their children, protecting them from every possible challenge and every possible thing that might go wrong, and this debilitates the young people.
When parents fight their child’s battles, even when the child is well into their twenties, these young people never develop the strength to cope with normal life.
From everything I’ve observed, it seems clear to me that the underlying cause of the current mental health crisis is the type of well-intentioned but deeply detrimental parenting that is crippling our kids and leaving them incapable of functioning in their post-secondary education and in the workplace.
Helicopter parenting has become so frighteningly common that now schools at all levels have jumped on the bandwagon, demanding less and less of their students, passing them even if they haven’t learned the required material and failing to guide them and discipline them appropriately.
Even our government bodies have taken on this wrong-headed approach, with the recent case of a single dad, Adrian Crook, who was forbidden from sending his four children to school on public transportation without supervision.
Mr. Crook has launched a GoFundMe campaign to fight this ruling, stating that the government is depriving his children of the opportunity to develop much-needed autonomy and skills for functioning well in life as adults.
The solution to this mental health crisis is not simply to increase the number of services offered to young people today.
Society won’t be able to afford the costs of this crisis, both in the growing levels of care required for these young people and in the devastating degree of disability that results from it.
Any type of bandaid solution misses the point. As with any health crisis, we must focus squarely on prevention.
We have to educate parents about the pitfalls of helicopter parenting and show them how important it is for them to step back and allow their children to develop the skills, attitudes and habits necessary for their future well-being and success.
If we only address the problem on the surface level without looking at the root cause, the mental health crisis we’re facing will only get worse, and that’s an outcome we simply can’t afford to let happen.
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Check out my latest podcast. Julie Lythcott-Haims discusses how we became helicopter parents and how to switch gears and give kids what they need to grow up into high-functioning adults.