Posted on | December 22, 2013 | 77 Comments
Amy (not her real name) sat in my office and wiped her streaming tears on her sleeve, refusing the scratchy tissues I’d offered. “I’m thinking about just applying for a Ph.D. program after I graduate because I have no idea what I want to do.” Amy had mild depression growing up, and it worsened during freshman year of college when she moved from her parents’ house to her dorm. It became increasingly difficult to balance school, socializing, laundry, and a part-time job. She finally had to dump the part-time job, was still unable to do laundry, and often stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to complete homework because she didn’t know how to manage her time without her parents keeping track of her schedule.
I suggested finding a job after graduation, even if it’s only temporary. She cried harder at this idea. “So, becoming an adult is just really scary for you?” I asked. “Yes,” she sniffled. Amy is 30 years old.
Her case is becoming the norm for twenty- to thirtysomethings I see in my office as a psychotherapist. I’ve had at least 100 college and grad students like Amy crying on my couch because breaching adulthood is too overwhelming.
Key phrase: “Amy had mild depression growing up.”
Re-written: “Amy was diagnosed with mild depression growing up.”
That is to say, Amy was introduced to therapeutic culture at an early age, because she grew up in an affluent society that can afford for its more privileged youth to get thousands of dollars worth of psychiatric treatment to deal with their feelings. Does anyone ever stop to wonder what became of such people before the rise of the psychotherapy industry in the 20th century?
What happens is that people become defined by their diagnoses, so that sometimes you meet someone at a reception who tells you, within the first five minutes of your introduction, that they suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, ADD or whatever.
To digress: Why don’t we ever meet any really interesting nuts? I mean, it might be interesting to meet someone at a cocktail party who says, “Yes, I’ve been diagnosed with sado-masochistic compulsions stemming from an unresolved Electra Complex.”
But old-fashioned Freudian categories are out of fashion, so you never meet anyone who describes themselves as being in the throes of an oral fixation or nymphomania or something like that. Neither, for that matter, does anyone ever describe themselves as a psychopath or a lunatic — “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m certifiably insane” — but instead these people usually confess to suffering from mood disorders which, to the contemporary way of thinking, means that they are sympathetic victims, rather than outright kooks.
Ever since Prozac started making headlines back in the 1990s, I’ve been dubious about the “brain chemistry” approach to treating mood disorders with SSRIs, because of a common-sense skepticism toward the claims of scientific “experts.” Is it really a smart idea to be loading people up on complex chemicals with all kinds of potential long-term effects? I mean, how many people who start on anti-depressants in their teens or 20s ever actually get well?
That is to say, shouldn’t the goal of psychiatric treatment be to get patients to the point where they don’t need treatment any more?
And yet I can’t remember anyone ever saying, “Yes, I was diagnosed with chronic depression, but I took these pills for six months and it went away, so now I don’t need the pills anymore and I’m as cheerful as a songbird all the time.” But I digress . . .
Encouraging kids to think of themselves as suffering from mental illness, e.g., Amy’s “mild depression,” is great for the pill merchants, but I’m not sure it’s really good for the kids. Helplessness is a learned condition, and if you start telling kids that they are helpless victims of their moods and feelings, well, maybe they’ll believe you. And if they are truly helpless . . .
“[T]herapeutic morality encourages a permanent suspension of the moral sense. There is a close connection, in turn, between the erosion of moral responsibility and the waning capacity for self-help . . . between the elimination of culpability and the elimination of competence.”
– Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)
Describing the problems he sees with young people, psychotherapist Brooke Donatone writes that “the ability to address hardships is lacking in many members of this generation” who have had too much parental assistance and supervision:
The researchers suggest that intrusive parenting interferes with the development of autonomy and competence. So helicopter parenting leads to increased dependence and decreased ability to complete tasks without parental supervision. . . .
Rates of depression are soaring among millennials in college. A 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association reported a 16 percent increase in mental-health visits since 2000 and a significant increase in crisis response over the past five years. . . .
If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. . . .
Amy, like many millennials, was groomed to be an academic overachiever, but she became, in reality, an emotional under-achiever. Amy did not have enough coping skills to navigate normal life stressors — how do I get my laundry and my homework done in the same day; how do I tell my roommate not to watch TV without headphones at 3 a.m.? — without her parents’ constant advice or help. . . .
Why is this happening? I blame the American micro-family, the two-income suburban household with one or two children. The parents are college-educated and expect — no, demand — that their children follow in their footsteps, without regard to the child’s own aptitudes or interests. This kind of high-pressure parenting is basically impossible with larger families, and the child with multiple siblings must necessarily rely more on his own resources.
High-achieving professionals quite naturally expect that their children should be able to replicate their success, but investing such hopes in just one or two kids puts unrealistic pressures on them, and fails to consider the problem of deviation to the norm.
The more exceptional a parent’s success, the less likely that their children will be able to match or exceed it. If you’re a Harvard-educated neurobiologist, the temptation to treat your child as a hothouse flower in an effort to make the child an even more exceptional achiever is likely to yield disappointment, simply because most kids — even those who inherit tremendous potential and who are provided with every advantage — aren’t exceptional.
Who are Amy’s parents? I’ll bet they’re well-educated, successful and affluent and are horribly disappointed in her. She’s 30 years old and says she has “no idea” what she wants to do, but I’ve got news for her: You’re already doing it, Amy. It’s called “failure.”
Lot of that going around lately.